Palace’s first signing of the 2022/23 season is Sam Johnstone, an England international keeper who will join the ranks of Palace players whose name will be frequently misspelled (‘Tompkins’, ‘Guita’ and so on…).
Despite this, Johnstone’s transfer from West Bromwich Albion again reflects Palace’s shrewd business under manager Patrick Vieira and our redeemed former manager and current sporting director Dougie Freedman. With Johnstone coming on a free transfer, this means in the last nineteen transfer windows, Palace have spent just £8.69 million on first team goalkeepers, including two England international keepers in Johnstone and Butland, Wales’s first choice keeper in Wayne Hennessy and perhaps our finest goalkeeper since prime Speroni in Vicente Guaita – the goalkeeper spot has rarely been an issue at Selhurst Park.
The question concerning Palace fans following this transfer would be as to whether Johnstone will replace Guaita as our first-choice keeper. It would seem unfair to Vicente to have him replaced; despite his growing age he has shown no signs of slowing down or dropping his quality. He has also been a stand out for Palace since his clean sheet Premier League debut against Leicester in December 2018, even winning Player of the Season in 2020/21. His performances on the pitch make him a good player, but his interactions with fans in-and-around the ground and on social media shows him to be a good bloke too – if Johnstone is to be our new No. 1, he will have large gloves to fill.
Statistically, Johnstone may be an improvement on Guaita. Judging from Johnstone’s last Premier League season with West Brom in the 2020/21 season, the England international had a 70.6% save percentage, saving 161 shots out of the 228 shots on target he faced that season. The most in the league that season. Vicente, while having a higher save percentage of 73.5% last season having faced just over half as many shots as Johnstone with 83 shots saved out of 113 shots on target.
Johnstone can clearly handle the pressure of being in goal and is clearly a fantastic shot stopper. In a Palace team with a much more sound and organised defence than West Brom’s back line of two years ago, Johnstone could thrive and show the best of his ability. He has the capacity to make himself very big in the goal to put off attackers, this often due to his intelligent positioning in the box. While also being adept at distributing his saves into safety, not back into the danger area, Johnstone’s reaction times and decision making make him a more than adequate first team ‘keeper.
Johnstone’s distribution can also suit Palace’s counter-attack, as seen by his two pin-point accurate long passes to set up two goals for West Brom against Bournemouth, with Johnstone even claiming an assist for Andy Carrol’s goal. Even in games where Johnstone has conceded multiple goals, such as their away fixture at Fulham in the Championship last season, Johnstone is rarely to blame. In that game at Craven Cottage, Johnstone conceded one penalty, a 1v1 where his defence left him relatively hopeless to save Mitrovic’s shot, and the third goal where his defence seemingly retired from football before the full-time whistle. With Palace’s much improved defence under Vieira, Johnstone will have much less pressure on himself in the box as the defence in front of him should give him enough protection to avoid conceding goals like he did against Fulham.
However, Johnstone is not devoid of mistakes. Huddersfield’s opening goal in their 2-2 draw against The Baggies came from sustained pressure from the Huddersfield attacking line, with Johnstone’s attempted long pass being immediately blocked and turned into his own net. In addition, against QPR, Johnstone’s poor positioning on the top left corner of his box allowed the QPR attack to take advantage. However, all goalkeepers make mistakes throughout the course of a season. Johnstone’s mistakes are few and far between.
So what is the verdict on Sam Johnstone? Our very own cult hero ‘Super’ Kevin Philips called Johnstone a ‘fantastic’ shot stopper who wouldn’t be ‘in the England squad if [he didn’t] have anything about [him]’. Only time will tell for Johnstone, but for a player whose had strong links to both Manchester United and Tottenham, the fact that Johnstone has chosen Palace truly indicates where this club is going and gives us all hopes for what more is to come.