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Promising Pau Lopez: A Look at Roma’s Third Summer Signing

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Roma’s new sweeper keeper was useless with his feet until a spell in North London changed his game.

Spain v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

His name was Ivan Pelizzoli. Today, Pelizzoli still enjoys the distinction of the fifth-best Serie A record for most minutes without conceding a goal, but the Italian keeper’s career in Rome was one of grand expectations, that 2003-04 Scudetto lost to Milan, and a career snuffed out through injury before it had truly begun. Similar vibes are hitting us around Pau Lopez, as Roma’s newest blockbuster keeper has only scraped two proper full seasons of football under his belt to date.

You’ll also read a lot around the web about Lopez being worth the gamble, since good sweeper-keepers are at a premium in modern football trend. But Pau Lopez was useless with his feet until a year spent in the Tottenham Hotspur reserves with fellow Catalan and Spurs goalkeeping coach Toni Jimenez that changed everything. Two seasons later, and Pau Lopez is a completely remodelled talent who Roma are hoping can reach the next level of his career in the Italian capital.

We decided to frame Lopez’s prospects by comparing him against his last two predecessors in Roma’s goal. And yes, that includes comparing him against That Man From Brazil. You can thank us later for the weight of expectations, Pau.

Finding Your Angles Between the Posts

2018/19 Season

Player Goal/90 xGA Goals Against Shots/90 Clean Sheets Saves % OutofBox/90 OneonOnes%
Player Goal/90 xGA Goals Against Shots/90 Clean Sheets Saves % OutofBox/90 OneonOnes%
Alisson 0.59 45.52 24 2.76 32 78.57 0.79 14.29
Olsen 1.45 66.02 46 4.57 12 68.18 1.02 0
Lopez 1.32 49.85 34 3.96 10 66.67 1.59 25

We’re kicking things off by looking at the actual goalkeeping side of things - saves, clean sheets and everything a goalkeeper still gets paid to do between the sticks.

It won’t surprise you to see Alisson come out on top in almost every single category for the 2018/19 season here, though the Brazil number 1 enjoyed the least action on his goal out of all three high-line defences, as Liverpool conceeded an expected goals count of 45.52 in all competitions with Alisson in goal.

Compare that to Roma xGA count in all competitions with Olsen in goal, and it’s fair to the big Swede was asked to earn every last ounce of his paycheque in Rome last year. We’ll never truly know how much of that disaster defence was down to the lack of midfield cover, and how much was down to Olsen failing to communicate with his backline. But we’ll be hoping Lopez can get fluent in Italian ASAP if he’s going to stay anywhere near the xGA 49.85 faced in all competitions at Betis last season. Perhaps the most damning aspect here against Lopez (and all super-aggressive keepers) is the fact Olsen managed to save a bigger percentage than the former Betis keeper last season.

There’s a drastic difference in styles between Roma’s former and new number 1, where Lopez loves to rush and and try to close down shots as soon as possible as opposed to Olsen banking on his height to stay in goal. Roma’s new keeper Lopez rushed out even more than Alisson last season and Lopez won even more more one-on-ones with the opposition striker than the world’s best, too.

But there’s some fine-tuning to be found there for the 6 foot 2 inch Iberian keeper, as Olsen saved more shots than Lopez under more pressure.

Pau Lopez won more one-on-ones than Alisson Becker last season. A truly aggressive sweeper keeper.

Keeping Calm Under Pressure: The Lopez Backstory

Who could forget Olsen’s saves visibly raising the morale of Roma when the team was under pressure away to Juventus last Christmas? The answer is absolutely everyone, Robin. Everyone will forget. Life can be harsh when you take a wrong turn in your career, your best efforts be damned. I think both Monchi and Marco Savorani (both reportedly responsible for bringing Olsen to the capital - Monchi specifically on Savaroni’s advice) owe Olsen an apology basket of chocolates so the rest of us can move on.

Olsen came to the capital as a guy known for holding a steady temperament and he’ll leave with the freeze-frame images of him shouting his head off at fellow Roma teammates following him out the door. But if there is one thing I am happy to wave goodbye to, it’s the fact you could bet your house on Olsen watching the ball put past him whenever he was left one-on-one with a striker.

I’m not entirely convinced the WyScout count (of which we owe a debt to Benedetto Greco’s work found on his Facebook page if you ever want to give him a follow) of Olsen’s one-on-one saves is truly a big fat zero, because I do remember Olsen making a one-on-one save this past spring. It was so rare that I’d never forget it. But Pau Lopez is really is a sweeper keeper in the definitive sense of the word.

Lopez’s one-on-one prowess will undoubtedly be called upon to cover the space left behind Roma’s backline to goal this coming season, even if his timing can be improved. In the last season alone, Pau Lopez conceeded 8 penalties as the last man left between goal and striker.

Testspiel 1. FC Koeln gegen Espanyol Barcelona Photo by GASPA/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The Spanish keeper is described as a character who never lets mistakes overshadow his performance, and Lopez has had to prove his strength of character ever since he was a 12-year old thrown into the cadete ranks at formation club Espanyol (the cadete is the Spanish Liga equivalent of the U-16 category - Lopez was at least four years ahead of his class when he was first taken on by Espanyol’s academy).

In the early Espanyol days, Lopez showed enough for his goalkeeping coach Thomas N’Kono (he of the Cameroon heroics at Italia ‘90) to defend Lopez in difficult moments, insisting the keeper’s talent in between the sticks was worth the risk. It would take seven years of persistence, but a 19-year old Lopez went on to earn his first five-year professional contract (that he would controversially walk out on by the end of it) and took his place as Espanyol B’s starting keeper in the Spanish 2013-14 second-division Segunda B season.

Lopez’s performances convinced his hometown club to promote him to the first-team bench the next year, serving as Espanyol’s cup-keeper for the ‘14-’15 Copa Del Rey while Kiko Casilla made all the league starts. The Periquitos would go all the way to the Copa semi-finals while Lopez began to attract interest around Europe.

Ultimately, Pau decided to stay at Espanyol for the 2015-16 season as Kiko Casilla agreed a dream move back to Real Madrid. Pau Lopez knew the Espanyol number 1 shirt was now his to lose and earned a rep for humility that still survives - despite the controversies since - at Real Betis today. Away from the pitch, he’s only ever shown himself as a laid-back character happy to walk his dog and take care of his family.

(Note: the video’s subtitles above can be auto-translated into most languages in settings).

That’s despite the fact Lopez is extremely competitive and not afraid of trying to wind up opponents in games, which infamously brought Lopez meme-level ridicule through a Leo Messi lob following on from when Lopez once tried to tread on Messi’s ankle in a Catalan derby years prior.

Pau Lopez sounds like a young De Rossi or Roy Keane: keeping will within his limits off the field while pushing the boundaries on it. Though we won’t expect the keeper to be taking the number 16 jersey in Roma next season.

The overall verdict of Lopez’s first La Liga season all the way back in first full senior season wearing Espanyol colours? A decent reaction keeper with steady hands, but a raw talent who left a lot to be desired when it came to distributing the ball out the back. Not what you’d expect to hear of a man upon which Roma are now gambling near 30 million euros to step into the demands of possession-obsessed coach Paulo Fonseca.

It was only in the summer of 2016, when former Espanyol and Catalan keeper Jimenez convinced Mauricio Pochettino to headhunt Pau Lopez on loan at Spurs, that Catalonia’s newest goalkeeping star would discover his own potential with the ball at Lopez’s feet.

The Eleventh Man on the Ball

Though Lopez never came close to cracking the first team at Spurs, much less getting his loan redeemed in London, the transformation he underwent in his time at Tottenham showed itself on his return to La Liga.

In the 2017-18 season, Lopez racked up another 29 starts for Espanyol while becoming a more reliable passer of the ball. He then declared his contract talks at Espanyol as “not good enough” for a player who Espanyol were meant to show long-term faith in. His father even managed to piss off every Espanyol fan when the senior Lopez declared, on being publicly awarded a deaconhood in the Girona-region town of Amer in the summer of 2018: “Some people belong to Real Madrid, others to Barcelona. I came from Espanyol but soon I’ll belong to Betis.”

Real Betis Balompie v Valencia CF - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Every single bridge at Espanyol truly burnt after two seasons of promise, with an interim apprenticeship at Tottenham, as Pau Lopez was forced to come out and publicly defend his father before moving to Real Betis on a free transfer. Just twelve months later, and Pau Lopez has won an international cap with Spain at senior level while Betis are profiting handsomely by moving him onto Roma for a blockbuster fee.

Undoubtedly most of that fee is gambled not just on Lopez’s strong will under pressure, but his contribution to Betis’ possession-focused game. The Verdiblancos may have finished tenth in the league but were second only to reigning La Liga champions Barcelona when it came to their share of the ball, Real Betis ranking with a team average 59.4% share of possession in 2018-19.

Lopez can help take pressure of Roma on the ball, when faced with a four-man high press by opponents.

We touched upon the above on-pitch scenario in our Amadou Diawara run-down; it’s a situation that Betis faced in some league games last year, not to mention one that Roma has faced in the last two seasons under Alisson and Olsen.

When opponents feel that their defensive strength is better than Roma (or Betis’) strength on the ball, they’ll choose to proactively get high up the pitch and commit an intensive four-man press in search of recovering the ball. It’s where you need a keeper like Pau Lopez to be willing to receive the ball from his Roma defenders, and use it to take the opponent’s highest four players out of the game as Roma go on the attack.

In the scenario above, Lopez has the ball while opponents are covering his next possible pass to the Roma centre-backs and left-back; all of this while the opposition striker is looking to rob the ball off Roma’s keeper. Lopez’s best option is to dink it either over the top or out wide to Roma’s midfield, so that the Lupi can immediately enjoy a one-man advantage up the field.

All this provided that Lopez can find them.

That should be no problem for Roma’s newest signing, given his performance on the ball in 2018/19 compared to his two Giallorosso predecessors in their respective teams last season.

2018/19 Season

Player Passes/90 Forward Passes/90 Short Passes/90 Long Balls/90 Average Pass Length (m)
Player Passes/90 Forward Passes/90 Short Passes/90 Long Balls/90 Average Pass Length (m)
Alisson 20.98 9.62 16.87 4.08 29.12
Olsen 18.85 11.7 11.83 6.96 33.06
Lopez 24.48 13.42 18.8 5.68 26.15

The possession-based performance between Pau Lopez and Robin Olsen is night-and-day levels here. Olsen preferred that long ball to target man Edin Dzeko last season, as a legacy of the Scandinavian keeper’s playing days back in Denmark. Meanwhile, Lopez’s rigorous short-passing game is everything you’d expect of a keeper who helped his Betis team to the second-largest share of the ball in La Liga.

Pau Lopez joined in his team’s play even more than Alisson at Liverpool, while Lopez’s 79.1% passing accuracy rivalled Alisson’s supreme 80.3% accuracy in the Premier League (that even jumped up to 93.3% passing accuracy in Alisson’s victorious Copa America campaign this summer).

We’ve got a decent talent on our hands in Roma’s newest signing, and it’s probably Lopez’s consistent short-and-medium passes out wide to Betis’ full-backs in possession that convinced Roma he was the keeper for Paulo Fonseca’s football this season. You’d be hard pressed to find a better identikit keeper on the market right now.

Pau Lopez will have to try and draw out the opposition from defending deep

All this being said, there won’t be many times in Serie A where Fonseca’s Roma will play against opponents confident enough to try some kamikaze-pressing high up the field. Especially if Lopez performs on the ball as good as promised, then word will be out in the Serie A streets to stand off of Roma’s backline.

It’s far more likely Fonseca’s man will face the scenario above, in which Italian teams sit deeper and stand off Roma on the ball inside the Giallorossi half. It’ll be down to Roma’s new sweeper keeper to come join in possession play outside of his box, and try to tempt opponents into trying to close him down.

If you think we’re being extreme with how far up the pitch Roma’s keeper is playing in the scenario above (beyond even his own central defender), it’s actually a play taken from Lopez’s performance in a home league game against Valencia last season. This is him on the ball between his own centre halves:

Lopez playing the ball well outside of his own box in a Betis defeat to Valencia last season
Totalfootballanalysis.com

Somewhat ominously, Real Betis lost this game at home. The reasons why will be very familiar to Roma fans: poor finishing from Betis in a game where chances were at a premium. Valencia sat back for the most part of the game, and always looked to suffocate the middle of the pitch with numbers even when they were forced to move a little higher up the pitch.

Pau Lopez did his best to draw out Valencia into pressing him, and the nerve of Lopez in coming this far out of his box to join in play is admirable even if it proved ineffective on that day. Lopez is known for joining in the first-team outfield training drills on the ball, and it’ll be interesting to see if he joins in Fonseca’s mini-square possession drills with the rest of Roma’s outfield players this week at Trigoria. Nonetheless, that Liga game saw Valencia hit Betis on the break as the away side ran out 2-0 winners against the run of play.

FBL-EUR-C3-SHAKHTAR-FRANKFURT Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a reminder there’s really only so much you can do with a goalkeeper in football, no matter how good he’s become with his feet.

Roma’s problems in breaking down teams who sit back will come down to how good the Roma midfield is at causing uncertainty in opponents’ backlines once again, but at least Gianluca Petrachi has gone out and gotten Fonseca the GK talent to fit Roma’s identity like a matching glove. A lot will be said about Lopez’s transfer fee when the full details of it finally come out, but as a fan I have give up and admire Roma for backing their new coach the way we asked the club to back the coach last summer.

As Roma Twitter

Getting Pau Lopez is a damn sight better than poaching a keeper barely suitable for Roma’s aspired identity, then throwing said-keeper back into obscurity once it turns out not even mythical Roma coach Marco Savorani can work miracles in time with Robin Olsen. We’ll hope for a better tutelage between Savorani and Roma’s 24-year old goalkeeping talent Pau Lopez for the coming season.