In these parts, it’s a right of passage.
To be serenaded with the special “He’s one of own” chant marks entry to the Middlesbrough family. Over recent years, that mantle has been passed on to many – Ben Gibson, Stewart Downing, Ali Brownlee, Tony Mowbray and David Wheater to name a few.
However, one of ‘Boro’s current local crop has grabbed the chant by the neck and wore it on his sleeve. That player is the focus of this scout report; Aynsley Pears.
The ‘Boro glovesman has Teesside pedigree and a big name to live up to. His father, Steven Pears, racked up over 400 appearances and played a part in four promotions for the club.
Jonathan Woodgate has put his faith in the young goalkeeper as a time of turmoil from the club and his decision has looked to be vindicated. To find out why, and where his promising future may take him. You’ll have to read this tactical analysis.
In the world of Talent Identification, the FA use an analysis of the ‘Four Corner Model’ for Scouts. This helps judge technical ability and player potential:
- Technical (Skill, awareness, control)
- Physical (Speed, strength, recovery)
- Social (Teamwork, behaviour, attitude)
- Psychological (Patience, pressure, learning from mistakes)
From the performances and attitudes that Pears has demonstrated so far, he has displayed a near-perfect score in Psychological strength.
The 21-year-old from Durham could have hardly entered under harsher conditions. His Championship debut came after Middlesbrough had lost their opening six out of 12 league games leaving them one place and point outside of the relegation zone. Middlesbrough were being decimated at both ends, and early season optimism had paved way for justified worry.
To add to this, he was to be succeeding ‘Boro’s keeper of the decade in Darren Randolph. In similar fashion to David De Gea at Manchester United, Randolph has been exceptional in an underperforming side. No ‘Boro fan would begrudge Randolph of the Premier League football his form has deserved. However, the fear that Middlesbrough would be doomed to relegation without his between the sticks was silently present on Teesside.
To make this a trio of uphill struggles, Aynsley has also had to deal with the expectation added in being the son of an icon. You only have to cast your mind back a couple of seasons to see an example where a Middlesbrough legends’ son, Conor Ripley, tried and failed to lay claim to the no.1 spot.
Aynsley Pears has shown great Psychological strength in his early tenure at Middlesbrough which bodes well for the future. His ability to walk into a struggling defence and bring calm and stability way beyond his years and non-league experience is inspirational. He has shown grit through confidently replacing last years ‘Team of the Championship’ goalkeeper. He has displayed immense passion by throwing embracing the name, the shirt, and screaming “He’s one of our own” back to travelling fans at West Brom.
To give an example of this, his willingness to take responsibility for the outcome in risky situations is testament to his character.
Here we see Aynsley shape up to defend a cross into the box late into a second-half 1-0 lead against the league leaders. He’s positioned well to deal with anything in the danger green zone. Defenders Ayala and Fry have space between them, but close enough to feel in control of the West Brom striker – Austin.
The ball is crossed in perfectly to the edge of that danger zone. Pears rushes out and meets the ball, despite being physically smaller than the two central defenders and further away from the flight.
He has ended up winning the ball in front of the Middlesbrough central pairing. This has relieved the pressure and diffused a difficult situation against a top striker in the division.
Pears has consistently shown his willingness and desire to take responsibility in big moments for Middlesbrough this season.
Outstanding positional awareness
Level with Sam Johnstone and Rafael Cabral, Pears boast the league’s best shot % ratio at 77%. However, the data and analysis show that these shots are not the most challenging. His average xG of shots saved is 0.07, which is below the likes of Martin Betinelli of Fulham (0.15) or Rafael Cabral of Reading (0.11).
Although Pears can only save what is thrown at him, his high save ratio shows he is at the right place at the right time. In addition to this, he is also a handy player with the ball at his feet.
The glorification of goalkeepers that are comfortable in possession such as Ederson, Alisson and Ter Stegen has seen a rise in teams looking for good ball players between the sticks. When comparing completed pass % to shots saved % (below), Aynsley Pears fairs well.
Unsurprisingly, the highest-rated goalkeepers within these metrics belong to the top two teams in the Championship. Although his pass accuracy % (81%) is slightly below the average for the top Championship keepers, he is already outperforming many experienced and accomplished colleagues in his league.
One of the key components for his superior saving % is his positional awareness. As he’s not the tallest goalkeeper you will see, he relies on a good starting position to save more shots.
In the first of a double save against Derby, we see a good start position adopted by Pears.
Pears is in an open crouched down position about one yard off his goal line and hugging his near post. His forward position will allow him to reach any high-elevation shot early. He can cover his near post as he has defensive back up covering the far post. He stance will allow him to rush across his line quickly in the event of a pass to Waghorn.
Having made the initial save, Pears is quickly to his feet and ready for the second. Once again, he takes up a position that gives little space away on his near post. As the first shot was saved on the front post, this time Derby opt to go across the keeper.
With the defensive players present at the back post still and the keeper off his line – this is a less lucrative option. Pears can make the second save and push the ball away to safety (below).
Against Nottingham Forest we see another example of Pears forcing the opponent’s decision through his positional play.
The Nottingham ball carrier here has two options; 1) to try and find the near post corner 2) use the passing option to Grabban in the middle. As Pears has covered most of that corner, the player decides to pass. Pears is also poised in front his goal line, to smother any loose pass that’s close to him.
Because the player is aware that Pears will stop any loose ball, the pass is too hard and out of reach for Grabban.
Pears’ pressure contributed to a big opportunity squandered for the opposition. When Nottingham pick up the pass, they choose to have a shot on goal but the keeper again has this covered well.
Where Pears can improve – clearances
Although it has been mentioned that generally Pears is good with his feet, this is not always the case. When under pressure and facing a moving ball, commonly from a back-pass, Pears ball distribution becomes poorer.
This isn’t too surprising given his age and experience, but could be an area of weakness’ that the opposition choose to exploit.
In the above example vs Stoke City, Pears is being closed down by the Stoke striker. His clearance is poor and lands in a danger area with a Stoke midfielder and no Middlesbrough players nearby.
In the below example against Nottingham Forest, the ball is played back to Pears with the press coming from Forests’ number 22.
The ball eventually landed in an area without any Middlesbrough player near and straight to an opposition midfielder. As Nottingham are high within the ‘Boro midfield here, a good chance is presented to create a dangerous attack.
Finally, we can see the below example from the game against Fulham.
Again, a back-pass with slight pressure has resulted in a wayward ball to the opposition. In this example, the Fulham controls the balls without Middlesbrough pressure and has a clear route for a forward run.
Fortunately for Pears and Middlesbrough, none of these clearances result in a goal conceded.
This does represent a weakness in his game however, and one that could be exploited by opposing teams. High pressing teams will force more back-passes and could be in better positions if they pick the ball up from the clearance.
It’s justifiable to explain this through inexperience and nerves under pressure. It’s important to bear in mind that Aynsley Pears is still only 21, with a mere 13 Championship games under his belt.
Aynsley Pears faced a gargantuan task when he donned the number 42 shirt for the first time in October. He was filling in for a ‘Boro favourite, and slotting into a far from tight defensive unit.
Since Jonathan Woodgate gave him his chance, neither he or Middlesbrough have looked back. Overseeing seven clean sheets in his first 13 games is incredible, with a highlight reel of saves any goalkeeper would be proud of. This tactical analysis proves that.
No clean sheet in any league comes easy, and Pears has certainly had to work for his. He’s averaged 3.1 saves a game and a mean 0.9 goals conceded per 90 illustrating his work.
Demonstrating good shot shopping and intelligent positioning, Pears has looked the finished article over a welcomed Christmas break for the ‘Boro.
There will be tougher times to come. It’s inevitable. He’s young and will make mistakes – potentially from a clearance. But the signs are positive, and Pears has already proved a tough mentality. The kind that will bode a young goalkeeper well in the future.
He may not be tall and gangly like Petr Cech. He may not be as assured in his distribution as Ederson. He may not be vocal and dominant like Kasper Schmeichel. But as the Middlesbrough faithful will proudly sing… “He’s one of our own”.