Last weekend saw a meeting of two Premier League teams whose successes are built on solid defensive foundations as Brighton and Hove Albion took on Burnley at The Amex Stadium. Unsurprisingly, the final score was 0-0. Mat Ryan was integral to the outcome.
For the home side, the result was unspectacular but welcomed, coming as it did on the back of three consecutive defeats. Faced by Sean Dyche’s uncompromising outfit, who have stunned many to reach sixth in the table this term, earning a point was viewed as a step in the right direction.
Brighton have performed well for a newly-promoted side. Currently, they sit between Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United as the middle of the three new Premier League faces, three points off the relegation zone in a positive 13th place position. Ryan, as their goalkeeper, has emerged as one of the team’s stars.
The Australian joined the club from Valencia in the summer for what was at the time a record fee of just under £6million. He immediately took the No.1 jersey, succeeding the departed David Stockdale and seeing off competition for the starting spot from Tim Krul and Niki Mäenpää.
Ryan’s latest individual display, in the draw with Burnley, received praise from his manager Chris Hughton, who said: “We were reliant on Maty making a really good save in the second half, but it shouldn’t have got to that stage.”
With defence their strong point, Brighton will be reliant on their shot-stopping hero as the Premier League season rolls on. Here we analyse why he has what it takes to shoulder those expectations.
RYAN THE PILLAR IN BRIGHTON DEFENCE
Brighton, having conceded just 23 goals in 18 league games this season, can lay claim to the best defensive record in the Premier League bottom half. Indeed, three top-half sides have conceded more, while Champions League hopefuls such as Arsenal and Liverpool have only allowed in three fewer.
Conceding at a rate of 1.28 goals against per game, Hughton’s side have only let in more than two goals in a single game on one occasion – against an in-form Liverpool. Losing 5-1 at home that day, they were simply overwhelmed by a side that lined up with two box-to-box midfielders in a three-man defence.
For context, their two fellow newly-promoted sides, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United, have conceded more than two goals in one game on five and four occasions respectively. Brighton, meanwhile, have managed to restrict some of England’s finest, including the two Manchester giants, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
The quality of their defence has been increasingly significant in recent weeks, as they have had to endure a winless run that now stretches to seven games. They last picked up three points in early November, away to bottom-of-the-table Swansea City, and have since failed to score in five of seven.
Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk have earned deserved acclaim for their performances at the heart of a cohesive back four, with their proclivity for blocking shots, winning aerial duels and clearing lines garnering attention. But behind them Ryan has been an exceptional last line of defence.
A conventionally safe goalkeeper who likes to make himself big in one-on-one situations, the 25-year-old has proven extremely difficult to beat. Opposition strikers have continuously been foiled by him, with Burnley’s Chris Wood the latest finisher to be denied.
Perhaps Ryan’s greatest moment of the campaign came against Crystal Palace, where he pulled off a stunning double save. First he stopped a Christian Benteke drive, then he recovered quickly and dived to push away Wilfried Zaha’s follow-up shot.
The goalkeeper was proud enough of that instance that he actually retweeted it. But the statistics suggest that he deserves more than the occasional highlight reel appearance.
RYAN’S STATS PROVE HIS WORTH
In an age where goalkeepers are expected to do more within the game, Ryan is beautifully old-school. Others may have better footwork, adeptness on the ball and distributive quality, but he does the fundamentals better than most.
His numbers are indicative of his commanding nature. Only four Premier League shot-stoppers have kept more than his five clean sheets this term, they being David de Gea of Manchester United, Petr Čech of Arsenal, Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea and Ederson of Manchester City.
Of course it is worth pointing out that all four play for teams who expect to challenge for major honours as opposed to avoiding a relegation battle.
Ryan also holds up in other, arguably more important statistical categories. For example, he is well within the league’s top ten goalkeepers when it comes to saves made per 90 minutes (2.53), while his assuredness is reflected by the fact that only six of his positional peers average fewer punches and only three average more claims.
He’s no sweeper-keeper, but the Brighton No.1 is slowly but surely cementing his status among the best in his position in the Premier League.
Hughton certainly values his goalkeeper’s contribution. “Where Maty has been very good is in some games he hasn’t been the busiest of goalkeepers,” he said. “But we’ve needed him for those moments, those goalscoring opportunities the opposition have. At the moment he is in good form and he has come up trumps for us.”
While the likes of Ederson receive widespread recognition for what they do with their feet, Ryan is busy reasserting the importance of quality handiwork. His old-fashioned goalkeeping is vital and, as the season lurches into an intensely busy period, he can be Brighton’s rock.