Getting it in the Zdeněk

Bobby’s form has come under increased scrutiny recently, but are calls for him to be dropped entirely justified?

Following Hearts over the past month has led me to believe I’m trapped inside my own Black Mirror episode. In this narrative (a sort of Metalhead-White Bear-Black Museum mashup for fans of the series) I’m held captive on a desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland, a yellow and red chequered flag greeting my every turn, as I’m forced to celebrate offside goals and experience the immediate gut-wrenching disappointment that follows, on repeat, for the rest of my days.

It’s the only logical explanation for what, on Saturday, became a five-game barren run without a win and a goal. The fact that this came at the hands of St Mirren (a team who started the day with one win in 13 games and fewer goals than Stevie Naismith) was disappointing, albeit not particularly surprising, given Hearts’ propensity over the years to donate three points to teams in desperate need. If only charity started at home.

One of the main beneficiaries of this weekend’s display of generosity was Adam Hammill, who netted both of St Mirren’s goals, the first of which provided the backdrop to one of the more contentious talking points of the Hearts Twitterverse post-game autopsy: the performance of Bobby Zlamal and the extent of his culpability.

The case for the prosecution focuses predominantly on his positioning. Though he wasn’t exactly miles off his line (relative to where the play was at that point) his position at the start of the below replay still looks a little suspect; he leaves a lot of the goal open to his right, thereby inviting the shot which he has to scramble across his six yard box to meet.

However, to focus entirely on the keeper’s role is to undervalue what was an excellent opportunistic strike by Hammill, one that a lot of players wouldn’t have considered attempting in the same circumstances (assuming they had actually recognised the chance in the first place). Even in situations where a player does take that shot on, there’s still a tiny percentage chance of the ball actually finding the net as opposed to the stand or the keeper’s arms.

That isn’t as much a defence for Bobby as it is an illustration of how freak a goal it was. What can be said in his defence, is that the ball definitely changes direction as it travels — not dramatically, but just enough to catch him out as he runs across goal.

The amount of blame attributed to Zlamal will vary depending on who you speak to. The eccentric Czech himself will undoubtedly be disappointed to have been beaten from such a distance. However, in keeping with the fickle nature of football fandom, a high profile mistake (particularly by a goalkeeper) can often provoke over-reaction and revisionism when reflecting on both the player’s overall performance and the security of his position within the team. As such, the word “bombscare” has been bandied about on social media quite a bit since Saturday evening, along with calls for Zlamal to be dropped in favour of Colin Doyle. Personally, I don’t believe that’s justified.

For argument’s sake, if we say being beaten from 35–40 yards was entirely Bobby’s fault, and that it essentially cost us the game, then it’s the second critical mistake he has made in a Hearts jersey, the first being his fumble for Celtic’s second goal in the League Cup semi which killed off any hope of a comeback.

Aside from those errors, he has generally performed as well as (if not better than) expected since joining in the summer.

In fact, compared to his peers (i.e. the league’s other de facto first choice keepers who have played the majority of their clubs’ Premiership matches) Zlamal ranks quite favourably, registering the third highest expected conceded goals while actually conceding only the sixth most goals (15), eight of which came in two games away to Rangers and Celtic. In terms of the difference between the goals he concedes and the amount he’s expected to concede, Zlamal tops the league, having conceded 2.9 goals less than he was expected to.

Difference between actual conceded goals and expected conceded goals by keepers in the Scottish Premiership (as at 29/11/2018).

Another thing that’s often criticised is Zlamal’s distribution. Again, the figures belie the perception: while he might look a little clumsy on the ball, Zlamal’s long pass accuracy sits at 71%, which could always be better, but compared to others in the league is as high as fourth-equal with Jamie MacDonald and only bettered by Motherwell’s Trevor Carson (80%), Jack Hamilton at Dundee (76%) and Hamilton’s Gary Woods (74%).

Although the figures indicate that Zlamal’s individual performances have regressed recently, he isn’t an isolated case. Instead, his dip in form has been symptomatic of the whole team’s struggles, most notably over the past four league games where we’ve failed to score a single goal. When your attackers aren’t scoring, among other things it puts pressure on those behind them and magnifies their shortcomings and mistakes. This is what we’ve started to witness over the past few weeks, with the likes of Clevid Dikamona — who we’ve come to regard as a reliable presence at the back — having a particularly nightmarish outing in Paisley.

Throughout our current goal drought, Zlamal has, on average, faced more shots (6.5 per game) and made more saves (4.5 per game) than he did in the previous 10 league matches (where the figures were 4.0 and 3.3 respectively). Prior to that, he had conceded only seven when he was expected to have conceded 9.6. Since then he has conceded eight at an expected rate of 8.3. In other words, he may be conceding more of the shots directed at him, but it’s no more than reasonably expected.

What that suggests is that in the earlier part of the season, Zlamal (like a number of his team-mates) was performing well above expectations which, unsurprisingly, coincided with our impressive run through to the end of October. During that spell, we saw him pull of some remarkable saves, a couple of which were as close to “match-winning” as a keeper can get (his point-blank stop at East End Park and the late diving effort to deny Gary Mackay-Steven the two that immediately spring to mind).

Since then, his performances have simply reverted to the mean. He isn’t underperforming or playing any worse than his team-mates, but given the nature of his position, one mistake is likely to remain in supporters’ minds for longer after the game than each of the wayward crosses and botched scoring opportunities which are arguably hurting us more right now.

It’s also fair to assume that if Hearts had responded by mounting a comeback to win 2–1 on Saturday, there would have been far less scrutiny on how St Mirren took the lead. In the first game against St Mirren, for example, they drew level with us in similarly freak circumstances and the Hearts players reacted by blowing them away with another three goals before half-time.

This time round was the exact opposite, which is a direct result of our other major problem right now: the lack of character and leadership on the pitch. As Craig Levein alluded to in his post-match comments, there are players in the side who are relying on others to solve problems instead of stepping up and taking ownership themselves.

It’s a frail mentality that simply didn’t exist — and wouldn’t have been allowed to creep in — when the likes of Berra, Souttar and Naismith were in the side. Unless Colin Doyle is the kind of character who can inspire a change in that mentality, dropping Bobby Zlamal does not strike me as the solution to our most pressing concerns.