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Unai Emery was right about Geronimo Rulli

The Argentinian keeper has shown his quality in recent weeks.

Villarreal CF v Real Betis - LaLiga Santander Photo by Maria Jose Segovia/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I would have shouted from the rooftops that starting Geronimo Rulli was a terrible, terrible mistake. When that’s the opinion you have of a player, every mistake he makes becomes more glaring, and I think I fell victim of this analytical shortcoming in matches where I watched him play. In reality, Gero has had a wonderful season stopping shots, and his distribution (which was on full glorious display against Real Betis) has been excellent overall.

For the stat aficionados among you, there’s a very popular goalkeeper stat called post shot expected goals minus goals allowed. Basically, did a keeper stop a higher or lower number of shots than you would expect him to based on the quality of attempts he faced. For some context, Jan Oblak had, for the season +11.5 in 2017-2018 and +11.1 in 2018-2019. Doing that, he saved Atleti almost a third of a goal per 90, in the 0.30 range. This was the peak of his shot stopping powers. So far, in 2021-2022, Gero Rulli is saving 0.38 post shot xG per 90. Now, will he save shots better than peak Oblak all season? Almost certainly not. But he’s been very, very excellent stopping shots so far this season, a dramatic improvement over last year.

Rulli has added this shot stopping ability to a bag of tricks that already included strong skills in possession. Over the last 365 days, Gero has averaged over 45 touches per 90 minutes, which is more than 95% of all keepers in the top five leagues. For some context there, Manuel Neuer averages about 43 touches per 90 minutes. If some possession style mistakes jump out in your head, a big part of why might be because the Argentine is being asked to handle the ball far more than the average keeper. When he does have the ball at his feet, he’s capable of wonderful things. Check out this long ball that started the move for our second goal against Betis (video should start at the pass but if it doesn’t scroll over to 4:46):

That ball is just world class, and it saved us from having to worry too much about another late collapse.

Last season, one of the areas Rulli struggled with was stopping crosses into his area. In the Europa League, he stopped just 4.9% of crosses he faced, and as you can imagine that is bad relative to other keepers. He’s up over 11% this season, which is the second best number in La Liga.

We will see if he can keep it up, but so far this season Unai Emery has gotten elite play out of Geronimo Rulli. Some of this has been helped by the scheme around him; Villarreal are an outstanding defensive unit. That said, he has also elevated his own play and the belief his manager puts in him has been paying off.