Okay, before I begin, I want to give a general overview of my position on Rulli so that it is not misunderstood. My position is that Geronimo Rulli is an above average La Liga goalkeeper. I don’t think he’s superb, but his play this year has, by the numbers, been the best goalkeeper performance we’ve seen from a Villarreal goalkeeper in at least three years and when we are diagnosing the problems with the side currently he doesn’t merit even being in the top five of them.
Things outside of Rulli’s control
Okay, before we get into Rulli’s play, itself, let’s talk about a couple of things that definitely aren’t his fault that he shouldn’t have to contend with and yet, he does. First, let’s talk about CB pairings. The Albiol/Torres pairing is not nearly as rock solid as it was last year. Albiol continues to slow down (literally) and so he’s just not the defender he used to be, and Pau, while still very good, hasn’t really taken the step into superstardom that he’s capable of. Then there is Aissa Mandi. No matter what you think about Gero Rulli, you almost certainly have Mandi ahead of him in the ‘worst player at Villarreal this season’ ratings. It’s like we got rid of Ramiro Funes Mori only to bring in a clone of the Argentine who is more prone to big mistakes. The CB play has been awful so far this season and what defense is in front of a keeper matters. Our fullback play hasn’t been great, either.
Then there’s the Unai Emery effect. Emery has, in some ways, brought Rulli’s best football out of him. Before coming to Villarreal, Rulli was still mistake prone, just like he is now, but without the bright points that worked to mitigate those mistakes. Rulli is playing the best football of his career so far this season, but even as Unai has played towards those strengths he has badly overdone it. Rulli makes more short passes than any keeper in La Liga, and I don’t think any of us think his decision making should be trusted to that degree. His manager continues to ask him to do more as a keeper out of the back than anyone should expect from him based on his career history, and that is not putting a player in positon to succeed.
Someone on Twitter called goalkeeper numbers ‘finicky’ the other day and I think it’s a good description. While there are many positions on the pitch that can be captured with great accuracy using numbers, with keepers it is hard because so much of their performance is deeply related to the back line set up in front of them and also the team’s tactics. Nonetheless, I think they can give us a general idea of a keeper’s level relative to his peers. What I’ll do on most of these numbers is compare what Rulli is doing this year to the best we’ve seen from Asenjo in the two previous La Liga seasons.
In terms of shot stopping, the best numerical metric we have is post shot expected goals minus goals allowed. This number allows us to see whether a keeper keeps goals out at a higher rate than expected. Gero is at +0.03 psxG-GA so far this season, not counting the Barca match, and having seen those Barca goals, that number will get a little bit better after that one. That’s the 7th best number of any keeper in La Liga this season and better than any number Asenjo has posted for the year in the last two years. This season, when he’s played, Asenjo has given up more than half a goal per match than should be expected given the shots he faced. Limited data set there, of course, but nothing that inspires confidence.
When it comes to commanding his box and stopping crosses, Gero stops 11% of all crosses that come into his box. That’s the third best number in all of La Liga. Going back to 2017-2018, Asenjo has never had a number that good in a La Liga season.
In the realm of passing the ball, Rulli is being asked to do a lot but he has largely delivered. As mentioned above, Rulli plays more short passes than anyone else in La Liga. Curiously, the only keeper who plays a similar number of short passes is Marc Andre Ter Stegen, and he and Rulli send incomplete short passes at almost exactly the same rate per 90, with a slightly higher percentage of MATS’ passes going awry. When you ask your keeper to play the ball more than anyone else, more mistakes are the natural consequence. What’s annoying is that I think we would generally agree that hitting the ball long is one of Rulli’s strengths, and yet fewer of his passes go longer than 40 yards than any keeper in La Liga.
The hard numbers on his passing is that he’s had three passes between 5 and 15 yards that were incomplete and three passes between 15 and 30 yards that were incomplete, for a total of 6 short and medium balls out of 281 that didn’t end up in the possession of a teammate. He has been assigned with three errors leading to an opponents’ shot. This last number is the most of any keeper in the league, and that’s where he gets himself in trouble with fans. Yassine Bounou of Sevilla has two.
Now, for what I consider the coup de grâce, check this out:
Gero’s defending quality and quantity among goalkeepers are both elite. He peforms better than 84% of goalkeepers in the top five leagues in aerial duels from open play, and is above average in dead balls too. His ball retention numbers are also both well above average. By these numbers, there are actually some questions on his shot stopping ability in open play, but as we’ve seen those don’t injure the big picture numbers. There are a lot of things Rulli does well, here.
The occasional mistakes are where his detractors want to make their bread, but let’s back out and look at the big picture here. Villarreal has given up the 7th most goals in La Liga, tied with Barcelona and Rayo. We’ve given up 1.4 fewer goals than our expected goals against this season. By comparison, Valencia has given up 5.6 more goals than expected, Barcelona 1.2 more, Atletico Madrid 3.4 more (with Jan Oblak in goal, no less!).
Gero Rulli has not been outstanding this season, I’m not arguing that at all, but with a coach obsessed with playing out from the back, he’s handled a very large passing load decently well while putting up strong shot stopping and box command numbers. The number of goals we’ve scored is a much bigger issue for this side than how many we’ve conceded, and when it comes to trying to strengthen the team in January, dropping 10m or so on a CB and getting Gerard back healthy would both go a lot further to setting this team to rights than buying a goalkeeper would. He’s not a world beater, but he’s not this club’s real problem, either.