Analysis

How good is Andre Blake?

Photo by Earl Gardner

Union fans have had little to truly hold on to in the past few years that is consistently good, reliable, and inspiring. Those on the outside have had to look hard for value in their commitment to an organization that has seemed almost constantly in turmoil, one that fired its CEO and completely restructured only eighteen months ago, has seen its best player sidelined with injury for two full years with no clear pathway back to the field, has the talent to win four consecutive games and has the lack of focus to quickly lose two winnable games immediately thereafter, and is only just now finishing the first round of investments in infrastructure that will bring the team up or toward the median of league expectations in that realm.

Amidst all of these dark clouds has emerged a constant and clear north star for many fans: Goalkeeper Andre Blake. Given the Union’s history at his position, this is no small feat and no small irony. Blake was drafted first overall by the team in 2014, underwent several surgeries to repair injured knees in 2015, and emerged as the starter for not only the Union but the MLS All Stars as well in 2016. When last season ended, Blake won MLS’s 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year Award too, the first time in franchise history any player won an award of such magnitude. Blake is a starter for the Jamaican national team as well, and the league’s all-time Goalkeeper of the Year award winners list is one full of national team starters like him and positional legends in American professional soccer lore. He is a regular on MLS Save of the Week highlight reels and can be directly credited with saving points for the Union in seemingly countless matches since his insertion as a regular in the XI.

Cracks in the pavement

“A goalie is a goalie because he can’t play soccer.” – Ruud Gullit

Gullit’s sentiments were those that men and women of a certain age grew up with in America, too, probably playing a diamond back four in a 4-4-2 and using the keeper as a player most adept at catching with his hands and lumping the ball forward with his feet, with little or no regard for where that ball ended up. This was not a position of subtlety: stand there and block the goal; everything else is unimportant.

Modern soccer has changed the requirements for competency for quite a few positions on the field, perhaps none more than the goalkeeper. Keepers today in almost all leagues and formations must do substantially more than save shots with their hands, a requirement that is simply a baseline for qualification now rather than an impressive skill. Modern keepers are expected to often play as the team’s libero, Italian for “free” and similar to the Sweeper of that diamond-in-the-back past, a fluid and versatile center back with gloves that is responsible for shot-stopping of course, but also for being the first pivot point around which the offense takes its shape.

In the same way that Jim Curtin names his striker as his first defender in the team’s pressing defense, the goalkeeper must also be this team’s first attacker, with every pass having a purpose and a direct impact on the team’s ability to score a goal.

Andre Blake is an ASTONISHINGLY TALENTED SHOT-STOPPER. In almost every match, the Union man stops a shot that puts him in qualification for the league’s Save of the Week. However, that particular award is one he won only once in 2016, and Blake has only earned a place on the MLS’s Team of the Week once in 2016 and once in 2017. Given his aforementioned accolades, this should be surprising, but the fact of the matter is this: Major League Soccer is full of astonishingly good saves made by talented keepers. Blake is among that group because he has the baseline shot-stopping skills that all teams begin with when building their roster from the back. However, so does Nick Rimando, Joe Bendik, Luis Robles, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and a dozen other league keepers, some of whom even used to wear Union blue.

For all of his shot-stopping skill, Andre Blake has a weakness in his game that is becoming clear to Union opponents and fans alike: Andre Blake is a liability with the ball at his feet.

Valuing “our” players

“People tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.” This is called mere-exposure effect, or the familiarity principle, and “the more often a person is seen by someone, the more pleasing and likable that person appears to be.” It’s worth considering that, even though Blake was so highly lauded in 2016, Union fans overvalue his contributions to the team and his overall status with respect to the rest of the league in part because of this principle.

Union fans aren’t the only ones who watch soccer and have opinions about Union players, though. It’s worth looking at other sources to help determine how much affect this bias has, if any.

Who is this caped crusader?

To call Andre Blake anything less than the best shot-stopper in the franchise history is a disservice to the magic he has contributed to his team. As mentioned above, though, that should be qualified as a baseline skill upon which others must be considered. Take the Union’s most recent match, a 2-1 loss at New York City FC, about which Whoscored.com described plenty of positives for the Boys in Blue but listed as a negative of their day that the Union “this one, and a cursory scan of his saves underscores that.

However, goalkeepers are also expected to be a net positive to the team’s possession in this day and age, and this is how we can assess Blake’s contributions more clearly. The Union were out-possessed on Saturday 63.1% to 36.9%, a margin that allowed City to attempt nearly 77% more passes. What that means in building from the back is important, and the binary between Blake and his counterpart, Sean Johnson, is absolutely stark: Johnson had 60 touches on the day (13% of all of City’s passes) and completed a team-leading 88.4% of them, while Andre Blake had 42 touches (30% fewer, but accounting for nearly 17% of all of the Union’s passes) and completed a second-worst on the team, 39.3%, only beating the rusty and disconnected Josh Yaro in that category.

When the Union employed their favored high press and forced City into giving Sean Johnson a touch, the Union barely won more than 10% of the ball immediately after that. When City did the same to the Union and Blake, in what accounted for nearly one out of every five of the team’s touches, the Pigeons won the ball back 60% of the time.

Summary

Andre Blake’s first job as a goalkeeper is to stop shots on goal, and he does that extremely well. He is superman between the pipes for Union fans, who value Andre Blake so highly as a shot-stopper that they fail to see how much of a negative influence he has on team possession and what that does to the team’s ability to assert themselves in matches and dictate play. Passing is this Superman’s kryptonite.

Libero keepers, Sweeper-keepers, or whatever the buzzword term is, aren’t just a fashionable element to the modern game. They’re an essential tool to control matches and one that the Union currently lack. Until that gets better, expect more highlight reel saves and more wasted opportunities for possession out of the back.

20 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    ‘The first pivot point around which the offense takes shape.’
    .
    Yup. 100%. A significant problem.
    .
    Course I’m uncertain what else to say…cause you wrote it perfectly and I get called el Poacher about, “Literally. Everything.”
    .
    Thank you for the write up. Lovely.

  2. I’m still not convinced that his shot-stopping and box-control isn’t worth 95% of a goalkeeper’s value, even in the modern age, given that goalkeepers rarely have the ability to make passes in the attacking area which make a bigger difference in team value.

    However, I am concerned about his lack of improvement in his passing/distribution since last year

    • Ken Zo Lo says:

      a goalkeeper can allow us to keep possession or lose it, so.

    • Great One says:

      Totally agree that Shot stopping/control is most important as a keeper. However, the distribution is a big problem. The real question is why hasn’t he improved? He doesn’t need to become the best ever, just reliable and competent in distribution. Is it coaching? Is it youth? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely what’s keeping him here and not in Europe.
      .
      Perfect example of ridiculously good distribution in a big moment.

      • Phil in Wilmington says:

        Ah, brings a tear to me eye…

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Every time I see that I focus on one thing… the Algerian defender who hesitates for a split second and doesn’t attack Donovan when it appeared he pushed the ball just to far – at 0:03. Thank you sir!!

      • soccerdad says:

        love that clip. …and the crowd goes wild!

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Didn’t that keeper play in a little tournament in Brazil as well as one in South Africa?

        Does anyone else think about heading to The Cliff when they see that video and think about how it relates to the Union?

  3. Phil in Wilmington says:

    Great points, and I totally agree about his distribution. But it’s not as simple as him “getting better.” Keep in mind, he’s 27. While that’s young in keeper-years, he’s not a pup, either. So we can rightfully expect some improvement, but it should be realistic. To expect him to ever be the Neuer (or more apt Rimando) in terms of foot skills is unreasonable. That said, having at least a 60% retention rate with his distribution would be a reasonable goal. Those numbers could most easily be improved if he felt comfortable bowling/throwing more and thumping deep downfield less. Long balls are by definition 50/50 situations, no matter how good your general aim (which again, needs work).

    It’s also worth considering whether or not this is something he is encouraged to do from the coaching staff as well. It’s not like Gaddis or Fabinho can be 100% trusted with the ball at their feet under pressure deep in their own territory, nor do you necessarily want to send that straight out to the center of the 18, even with Jack Elliot and Josh Yaro as options. Plus, you do want Pontius/Picault, Herbers/Bedoya dropping deep to show, or would you rather take your chances and maintain a higher line?

    So if the plan if “go deep”, then really it’s only on him to get it “in the neighborhood” and it’s more on the players in that area to fight for and win that 50/50 chance or second ball.

  4. hobosocks says:

    When people see problems in Andre’s game, my first reaction is to see them as a good thing in that we might be able to keep him. If it’s true–as Earnie insists–that no teams have inquired about buying Blake, the distribution may be why. Players with elite skill and no significant flaws under thirty are not MLS players at this point in the league’s development. Right now we have possibly the best shot stopper in the league. I will take poor distribution as a trade off and expect the coaching staff to find a way to work around it.
    .
    That’s why MLS coaching is so fascinating to me. It’s all about putting together a whole that can be greater than its parts.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Phew….If working around it means hoofing the ball up the field forever…. I’d rather Zach MacMath’s feet and giving up more . goals and not ceding 70% possession. Aesthetic for me.
      .

  5. One thing that drives me a little nuts about Blake (I do think his shot stopping ability is extraordinary and don’t want to simply criticize the guy) is that when he collects the ball or makes an easier save that keeps him on his feet, he never, NEVER hits a teammate with a pass really quick for a counter attack. He’ll rush to the top of his box as if he’s going to do it, but then will pause, slap the ball, and maybe wave his teammates up field before punting it. Maybe my memory is being a little selective and commenters here will point out that I’m wrong, but he does it so often that it really rubs me the wrong way, and has since he started getting regular starts.

  6. jpat2411 says:

    Ok, maybe I am naive, but I think of it as a two way street. Dre’s long distribution is not up to par and I agree with that. So then where is the buildup out of the back. It’s a lot easier to hit a 15-20 yard pass (or better yet throw or roll) than a 60 yard boot. Where are the options?

    Thoughts?

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      He’s either been instructed to hoof it, doesn’t see anyone checking to the ball (which Haris, in particular, does often), or when he sees people checking, he doesn’t believe he can get it to them in time/doesn’t trust them in possession.

  7. Start with paraphrasing another local description of a goalie, Bernie Parent: “Only the Lord saves more than Andre Blake.” It would be helpful to have either (or both) defenders that would release well enough to permit short distribution, or midfielders that would hold the ball on those mid range distributions. Since that is not the current situation for him, I am willing to allow him to develop. Frankly, if he is not as good a shot-stopper, we don’t need to worry about his distribution- it is much easier to hand the ball to the ref and allow it to be placed at the center spot. I am more concerned about my own, possibly wrong, impression that there are more rebounds being surrendered this year.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I really wanted to dig into that last point, too, but didn’t have time to do the research. Troubling as well.

      • I thought that I was imagining things. Good to hear that I am not alone on that island. Thanks for the analysis.

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