Idle Hands

“He’s had nothing to do all game,” we hear, every single week on Match of the Day, as if we’ve just cut to images of Hugo Lloris in a deck chair with a dog-eared copy of War and Peace, startled as a striker thunders by spilling his mojito.

Do keepers really switch off when they’ve had nothing to do? I thought it would be simple enough to check, so I looked at all the shots I have on record in terms of my save difficulty metric.


By working out the time between every shot on target faced and the previous goalkeeper event (be it another save, or a goal kick or whatever to wake the keeper out of their trance), you have the number of seconds the keeper has been idle before that shot. I limited the data to shots from open play, as you won’t have the element of surprise from dead-ball situations, and reset the clock at half time, so the maximum time a keeper can be idle is a little north of 45 * 60 = 2700 seconds.

Then to measure keeper over- or under-performance, you can work out the saves above expected for that shot: if a shot has a save difficulty of 70%, we expect a statistically average keeper to only save it 30% of the time. So if they do save it, we’ll score that as 0.7 saves above expected – they got 1 whole save, we expected 0.3 saves (which obviously isn’t actually possible on a single shot, but you get the picture), so they got a profit of 0.7. If they don’t save it, they got a big fat zero saves, and we score it as -0.3.

So, we know for every shot whether the keeper over or under performed when attempting a save (to the extent you believe the outputs of an expected saves model, obviously), and we know how long they’ve been idle. Is there any interesting correlation here? Do higher numbers for idleness result in saves under the expected value?


There is no overall correlation between idleness and shot stopping. I looked at the measure above, along with raw save percentage, with saves grouped into buckets by various lengths of idleness. The chart below shows the save percentage as the green area, and the saves above expected as the line.


This shows basically nothing – the saves above expected values are tiny, and dwarfed by the error of any particular xG model you choose to use. You can also safely ignore the big jump towards the end of the half – the sample size is miniscule. So, keepers can rest easy against their goalposts?

On a hunch I filtered the data down to what Opta deem as ‘fast breaks’. If you’re going to catch an idle keeper off guard, maybe you just need to be quick about it. It’s a smallish dataset (just over 4000 shots) but behold this trend:


So there you go, have we found something? By the time we’re in that 1200-1499 second bucket, we’re talking 117 shots, with 72 in the next bucket, so again, small sample. I’ve also chosen the bucket size fairly arbitrarily – at 150 seconds per bucket, things are far more chaotic, and we should be wary of Simpson’s paradox when aggregating data. But it does seem to be a hint that maybe something’s going on. There’s at least a 10 percentage point drop in save percentage as idle time increases, and keepers are also saving fewer shots than we expect, which should account for any shot quality issues above and beyond raw save percentage.

Are we sure we have the right cause though? I checked if it was just that teams create better quality chances later into a half (encouraging teams on to them for the first half hour to create counter attacks, or probing and finding weaknesses, I dunno) but saw no real differences per minutes of the half. Then I thought that perhaps it’s nothing to do with keepers at all, maybe defences are the problem. So I created this chart – it shows the same save percentage area as above, but instead of saves over/under expected, I just put the average chance quality and the average save difficulty. This tells us how good the oppositions chances were, and how hard they were to save, regardless of how the keeper dealt with them.

fast-break-idle-xgThe important thing to note here is that my chance quality model includes almost nothing about the actual shot as taken by a striker – it’s mostly about the position of the shot, and the buildup to it. For that metric to be going up (again only slightly, and again with a small sample size) it’s entirely possible that the fault doesn’t only lie with idle keepers, but with idle defences too, for allowing better chances. It’s also possible that the under-performance of keepers in terms of expected saves (to the extent we believe it exists) is because we have no measure for defensive pressure.

So what do we know? If there is a decline in performance due to idleness, it’s small, hard to prove with confidence, and may in fact be due to defences and not keepers. Not very convincing, I’m sure you’ll agree, but I was recently reminded how important it was to publish low-significance and null results along with everything else (if only to ease the pressure on the wasteland that is my drafts folder). I also googled around a bit and found nothing mentioning this, so I thought it would be good to get it out there for posterity. At the very least, every time you hear the old cliché in commentary, you’ll know there’s probably little reason to worry that keepers who have been idle will suddenly forget to stop shots.


A few notes and avenues for future work if you’re bothered:

  • By all means replicate this any way you like, it’s simple enough even if you have public shot data derived from the StatsZone app or BBC live text commentary. I’d be fascinated to hear if you find any patterns I’ve missed.
  • I’ve not looked at individual keepers – it’s possible there are some particular keepers that switch off, although I doubt it, and it’ll be a small sample size.
  • I didn’t include periods of extra time, just because I wanted to make sure that we were always comparing apple-shaped things.
  • I wasn’t strictly measuring idleness as time between saves, I was assuming that a catch or a goal kick was enough to wake a keeper up, but perhaps that’s an assumption to test.
  • I’m only looking at shot stopping, so I can’t rule out that idle keepers underperform on interceptions or catches in some way.
  • There are other measures one could use for fast breaks, or indeed counters, that may increase the sample size.
Idle Hands

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