Beasley: Kelleher’s Crucial Saves Anchor Liverpool’s Cup Success

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Van Dijk and Kelleher: Liverpool’s Cup Final Titans

Liverpool’s Man of the Match Contenders

Who was your man of the match in the Carabao Cup final? It might be easier to ask who didn’t perform at level sufficient to at least be an outsider in the conversation. The Liverpool players involved were all heroes to a man, or boy.

Until the 118th minute, Wataru Endō would’ve got my vote. Has there ever been a Reds player, nay footballer in history, who has performed their role so effectively and with such minimum fuss? With half an hour of normal time remaining, the captain of Japan had already equalled the League Cup final record since 2017 for tackles. He also ended the contest joint-top for recoveries on 12, alongside Moisés Caicedo, with his efforts across far more of the pitch.

Ball recoveries in the Carabao Cup final by Endō (3) and Caicedo (25)

Standout Performances

Long-term longevity aside, it’s hard to see what advantage the latter would have provided Liverpool when he cost almost £100m more than Endō last summer (though any player would improve away from the maelstrom of madness at Stamford Bridge and under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp). And once Virgil van Dijk popped up with the winning goal, he was inevitably going to take home the Alan Hardaker award for man of the match.

What a performance. It was the sort we take from the granted from the Dutchman, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of it when combined with overseeing a veritable crèche of talent. By the end of extra time he was the only man in red who could be confident of featuring in Liverpool’s best XI if everyone was fit and available. Klopp, the Reds and their supporters needed a hero in adversity and van Dijk delivered. And they thought he was finished. Ha.

Photo: IMAGO

Goalkeeping Heroics

Another player in with a credible shout of being the man of the match was Caoimhín Kelleher and indeed van Dijk claimed the Irishman should’ve received the honour when he spoke after the game. “He should have got it. I’m probably one of his biggest fans, I think,” he said (via Liverpool Echo). “I have always said he is world class and he stepped up today, again,” van Dijk continued. “It’s good to see. He’s a good boy, good goalkeeper and that’s what we need at a club like Liverpool.”

Klopp agreed, reiterating his previously stated belief post-match that the Reds “have the best goalkeeper in the world and the best Number two in the world.” Kelleher has faced many doubts from his own supporters during his time with Liverpool but is there any more unenviable position than filling in for maybe the best goalie in club history and pretty unarguably the best in the game today?

Statistical Analysis of Kelleher’s Performance

What the 25-year-old achieved at Wembley last weekend needs putting into context. It’s hard to get in-depth data for domestic cup games but in the opinion of Fotmob, the nine saves he made were collectively worth 2.95 in xG on target terms. Bear in mind that Chelsea’s expected goal tally was 2.28 and their 10 efforts which were blocked or off target obviously carry no value in a post-shot model. The nine they put on target were worth 1.25 xG, so the Blues’ marksmanship added a hell of a lot to the challenge facing Kelleher. Indeed, a stoppage time effort from Christopher Nkunku was the only shot among the Chelsea nonet which lessened in value once finishing was taken into account.

Photo: IMAGO

There have been just four instances of a goalkeeper saving more xG on target to keep a clean sheet in Europe’s big five leagues in the last seven seasons (per FBRef). Hilariously, one instance was Bernd Leno for Fulham when they won 1-0 at Goodison Park on the opening weekend of 2023/24, but none of the matches in question was anything like a cup final in stakes. Arguably more impressive is that there are 1,574 examples of a goalkeeper facing over 2.9 xGOT in England, France, Germany, Italy or Spain since the summer of 2017, so to have kept a clean sheet in such circumstances is astounding.

Even without the finishing factor, three of the saves Kelleher made were from Opta-defined big chances, opportunities where you would reasonably expect the attacker to score. He kept Cole Palmer at bay in the first half, Axel Disasi after the break and thwarted Conor Gallagher with just five minutes of normal time remaining. Let’s put that into context.

In the 2023/24 Premier League, there have been 102 examples of a goalkeeper facing at least three non-penalty big chances, but only 19 (18.6 per cent) where at least three were saved. Smaller still is the sample of facing three-or-more and not being beaten with any, with just six instances. Hell, David Raya has only saved three big chances in open play all season in the league, as has Nick Pope, and Ederson is only on seven. Kelleher saved three in about 65 minutes of playing time.

When it comes down to it, van Dijk performed at Wembley at a level to which we are well accustomed. Kelleher went above and beyond and then some. Not only is he the best number two in the world, he’s likely better than a fair few number ones too.

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