When Las Palmas signed Aaron Escandell in the summer, it wasn’t a case of the club buying a defined back-up goalkeeper – someone who was content to be an understudy. The 28-year-old had done wonders for his reputation last season, producing one of the top individual campaigns by any goalkeeper in Segunda, and setting a course back to the top-flight in terms of his individual ambitions.
As per Opta’s xG data, Escandell conceded 12 goals fewer than he’d have been expected to last term, based on the quality of shots on target faced. That was the second-best mark of any goalkeeper in the division, and he paired that with being one of the most efficient number ones with the ball at his feet. Indeed, it was precisely that combination of attributes that caught the attention of Las Palmas and other top-flight clubs in the lead up to the summer window.
Three months after leaving Cartagena, however, Escandell is still looking for his first appearance for his new club. And what’s more, there’s little sign of that changing any time soon.
The sole reason for that has been the performance of Alvaro Valles. In what should be the most difficult period of his Las Palmas career – between playing in La Liga for the first time and having his strongest competition yet – the 26-year-old is not only defending his position, but rather expanding his case as the club’s number one. Valles has not even allowed the notion of a ‘two number one’s’ approach to set in, for his performance levels have rendered Escandell a spectator.
Through his first 12 top-flight outings, the only game Valles has conceded more than one goal in was against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. He was beaten twice that day, but saved each of his first seven shots on target faced in the game. And until Brahim Diaz broke the deadlock in first half stoppage time, it looked like Valles might somehow drag Las Palmas – a purposely under-strength Las Palmas, at that – back to the dressing room on level terms.
Overall, the 26-year-old has played more games in LaLiga (12) than he has conceded goals (11) so far. For a goalkeeper on a promoted team, that’s a record to be proud of. Particularly when you look across to Granada – a team who pipped Las Palmas to the Segunda title last term – and see they’ve shipped 29 goals in as many games, it’s clear they’re onto something good.
Valles, logically, has played a big part in their stinginess. According to Opta’s ‘goals prevented’ metric – based on goals conceded from the quality of shots on target faced (using xG) – he has been the third-best shot stopper in La Liga so far. He’s conceded three goals fewer than expected (+3.1), which ranks only behind Spain’s number one Unai Simon (+3.6) and Cadiz stopper Conan Ledesma (+3.4). But given we’re in decimals territory, we can safely say Valles is right there alongside the best.
The context for both Las Palmas’ record and their goalkeeper’s dominance has a lot to do with their style of defending with the ball. The longer they keep it, the less time (and space) the opposition have to attack. Garcia Pimienta’s side average 4.1 passes per sequence of play – only Barcelona (4.7) and Real Madrid (4.6) average more.
In a league where they’re frequently facing off against teams with more attacking resources than them, keeping matches under control through their positional play limits their defensive exposure – even if it comes at the cost of not creating a huge amount themselves. Through their 12 matches, they have seen the fewest goals scored (21) and the lowest combined xG (25.4) of any team in LaLiga. But it’s a strategy through which they’re doing more than surviving.
To circle back to our man in question, Valles isn’t merely a recipient of the conditions that Las Palmas create. He isn’t standing in his goal watching his teammates bounce the ball off each other or checking the scoreboard as the minutes elapse without a goal conceded. The Las Palmas goalkeeper is an integral part in upholding the way of playing from which he benefits. Indeed, it probably represents more than half of his duties to do so.
If you’ve watched a Las Palmas game this season, chances are you’ve had the thought of ‘what’s he doing there?’ as your eye is drawn to that man in green. Well, that’s Alvaro Valles taking up positions as an auxiliary centre back. He’s had 243 touches outside of his penalty area this season, more than the next two goalkeepers on the list – Unai Simon and Marc-Andre ter Stegen – combined.
That activity outside of his box is the most visible display of Valles’ responsibility in possession, but what he’s doing from there – with the risks it entails – is of significant merit. Through the 26-year-old, Las Palmas are using the ‘extra man’ principle to its fullest.
So far, Valles has shown he can minimise errors while deciding – and executing – consistently well against what the opposition’s shape presents. His positioning keeps an extra man close by so Las Palmas can string together short, safer passes while manipulating the first line of the opponent’s pressure, and perhaps most crucially, he is showing he can find targets over longer distances when the pressure gets too hot close by.
The lofted clip from goalkeeper to full back is one of the most coveted traits for coaches who want to build advantages from the back. With the opponent usually looking to restrict space centrally, they’ll often leave the full back as a free man and challenge the goalkeeper to be able to execute the pass. If they can’t, the free man is of no danger and the opponent can zero in on more valuable receivers.
It bodes well for Garcia Pimienta, then, that Valles has completed more long balls to Sergi Cardona than any other goalkeeper to a full back in LaLiga this season (17). That connection speaks to Las Palmas’ proficiency with the ball, and how they’re using it to manage the different in-game scenarios they’re faced with.
The priority is to keep the ball at close quarters, and to position themselves via short passes that minimise risk while manipulating opposition players. But like all good teams, no matter their style, Las Palmas are showing they have the intentions and the means by which to punish the spaces that their opponent leave.
For that, they owe a lot to their goalkeeper.