If any club can attest to the outsized impact goalkeepers can have on the course of a season, it is Nottingham Forest. Two years ago, Brice Samba was the hero of their rise to the Premier League. Twelve months on, Keylor Navas’ best days might well have been the reason they stayed in it.
Given their recent experience, it is perhaps no wonder that they were so keen to extricate themselves from a position where Matt Turner and Odysseas Vlachodimos were the two starting options available to Nuno Espirito Santo. If the Premier League metes out a sizeable points deduction on them later in the year, then it could be that having the wrong men between the sticks over the past 22 games, the former in particular, costs them their status as a top flight team.
Matz Sels is arriving to rectify the situation. The 31-year-old is set to join from Strasbourg in a deal that could be worth up to £5 million. Whether he is the answer is, for now, an open question. He certainly won admirers in Ligue 1, where he went six years without making an error leading to a goal. This season alone Turner has made three, a tally bettered only by Wes Foderingham of Sheffield United. Like a great many goalkeeper statistics, error counting is an imperfect metric. Making no errors directly leading to goals is not a sign of a blemish free goalkeeper. Making a sizeable number, however, is suboptimal, to put it mildly.
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Forest signed Turner from Arsenal last summer well aware of the deficiencies in his game. Anyone who had seen him step into the fray for Aaron Ramsdale in cup games knew that playing with the ball at his feet wasn’t his strongest trait. He would even admit it himself. “Things happen faster here,” he ruefully acknowledged after his home debut with the Gunners. “Players are better, smarter and press with more intensity.”
Turner was working on his composure on the ball then and doubtless still is now. The harsh reality for the 29-year-old is that it has not been getting better fast enough. Instead, he is stuck in a vicious cycle where opponents scout one error like this one…
… and conclude that Turner is a rabbit in headlights, ripe for their forwards to press into submission. It says something when even Bristol City conclude that the Forest goalkeeper should be their pressing trigger. All too often, Turner feels that he needs to take an extra touch when a superior ball player might simply be able to move possession on first time. That is all the invitation that someone like Heung-min Son needs.
The goal he conceded against Manchester United was no less disastrous, though on this occasion Alejandro Garnacho shrewdly hid behind Nico Williams, almost baiting Turner into a risky pass into midfield. The case for the defense is the US No.1 couldn’t see the man waiting to steal the ball, but a better goalkeeper hits the ball well enough that Garnacho is not an issue.
Turner’s experience last season seemed to prove the point that at the highest level of the European game clubs could not afford a good shot stopper who lacked ball playing skills. This year has offered an even harsher lesson for the goalkeeping community. Even one of the Premier League’s most reactive sides cannot afford to carry any player who can’t pick a pass.
Perhaps Turner could have mitigated that if he found his very best shot-stopping form. Instead the form he has shown with the United States men’s national team deserted him. Over 17 games and 87 shots on his goal, Turner has conceded 5.5 more than the Premier League’s average goalkeeper would have, according to Opta’s expected goal model. That puts him in the bottom three among the 20 starters this season. These numbers can run a little wild over the relatively small sample size of half a season — any metric that ranks Ederson in the league’s bottom five shot stoppers merits a pinch of salt — but in Turner’s case those numbers chime with what he is showing on the pitch.
The suboptimal moments are getting more frequent. Gabriel Jesus poked through an inviting target for Arsenal’s opener on Tuesday. Dominic Solanke‘s looping header caught Turner rather flat footed for Bournemouth‘s late winner before Christmas. Ivan Toney might have bent the rules in Brentford‘s win last month, but neither Forest’s goalkeeper nor their defense covered themselves in glory with their reactions.
Given time Turner’s shot stopping form might have returned. Trusting his ball playing, though, would have been a leap of faith, one Forest simply are not in a position to make. Sels might not be the man to push this side clear of the relegation zone but one thing has become increasingly clear this season. If Turner had stayed between the posts, Forest would be teetering dangerously close to the trap door.