Why Mikel Arteta has chosen David Raya

Tomos Millward


Up until August 8th it was widely expected that Arsenal would compete this season with a goalkeeper pairing of Aaron Ramsdale and Matt Turner, with the former to receive the bulk of the Premier League and Champions League playing time. However, news broke on August 8th that Arsenal had reached an agreement to sign David Raya on loan from Brentford. Impact’s Tomas Millward discusses the differences between Arsenal’s two goalkeepers and questions whether goalkeeper rotation is viable in modern football.

Arsenal had long been rumoured to be interested in Raya, even before they signed Ramsdale in 2021, and their goalkeeping coach Inaki Cana had previously mentored Raya whilst they were both at Brentford. Fast-forward to today and it appears as if the Spanish international has now replaced Ramsdale as Arsenal’s number 1.

This comes following his starts against Everton, PSV, and Tottenham Hotspur after the season’s first international break. Ramsdale will be concerned that this replacement has occurred in an eerily similar manner to his own replacement of Bernd Leno 2 years prior.

At 28, David Raya has experienced a journeyman approach to English football. Having made his debut for Southport in the Conference League in 2014, he made just short of 100 appearances for Blackburn before making 150 appearances for Brentford across both the Championship and Premier League. He signed for Arsenal on loan for this season with an estimated £27m option to buy.

Ramsdale made his Premier League debut on the opening day of the 2019-20 season for Bournemouth and then experienced successive loan spells before joining Sheffield United and then Arsenal.  

 Why Raya?

Despite a Yashin trophy nomination for his endeavours last season, Aaron Ramsdale’s abilities are not up to scratch

When considering the reasons why Mikel Arteta has seemingly dropped Ramsdale for Raya, the answer is apparent in both player’s statistics. Despite a Yashin trophy nomination for his endeavours last season, Aaron Ramsdale’s abilities are not up to scratch for a team that wishes to compete in the Champions League, let alone win the Premier League title.

His shot-stopping, distribution, and sweeping are unsatisfactory, and he is the main position in Arsenal’s starting XI that is ripe for improvement. The most significant statistic when analysing goalkeepers is Post-shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed (PSxG-GA). This takes the likelihood of a shot becoming a goal once struck by the attacker and deducts the real number of goals allowed.

This is a more accurate measure of a keeper’s ability than save percentage as it factors in the difficulty of the save being asked of them. Goalkeepers desire a positive number, meaning they denied more goals than they were meant to based on the shots they faced.

For the 2022/23 season, Ramsdale was in the 45th percentile of Premier League goalkeepers and conceded 2 more goals than he should have based on this metric. Ramsdale’s distribution was also unremarkable, only completing 25.4% of launched passes, passes that are further than 40 yards. This placed him in the bottom 87% of Premier League goalkeepers. He also only managed to stop 5.8% of crosses, another below average performance compared with his peers.

Compare Ramsdale’s performances last season with David Raya’s and a stark contrast emerges

These shortcomings were compounded by his horrendous form during the run-in last season, gifting goals to Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz and Brighton’s Pervis Estupinian which cost Arsenal. This poor form continued into the beginning of this season when, despite not being entirely at fault, he was caught off his line by Andreas Pereira in a 2-2 draw at the Emirates. Compare Ramsdale’s performances last season with David Raya’s and a stark contrast emerges.

Raya prevented 5 goals using the PSxG-GA metric, ranking him 4th in the Premier League compared with Ramsdale’s -2 and ranking of 24th. Raya’s sweeping was also significantly better, stopping 8.7% of his crosses, compared with Ramsdale’s 5.8%. Raya’s 8.7% places him in the top 5% of Premier League goalkeepers.

However, the crucial area where Raya stands out is his distribution. He attempted 1367 passes, the most in the league, with the 4th best completion percentage of 39.3% for launched passes.

We can clearly see Raya offers a drastic improvement from Ramsdale’s sub-par performances last season. This difference in quality is also apparent to the naked eye. Ramsdale’s presence has often been erratic and unpredictable compared with Raya’s assuredness against both Everton and PSV.

Raya’s shot-stopping is yet to be tested but his ability to comfortably claim crosses and distribute through the opponent’s press has had a calming influence over Arsenal’s defence and contributed to their growing sense of control over games.

Control is what Arteta and other top coaches yearn for

Raya is seemingly much more comfortable travelling further outside of his box, something Ramsdale has previously admitted he struggles with, and this allows Arsenal even greater control over the game. This control is what Arteta and other top coaches yearn for.

The most logical way to win in a low-scoring sport is to press high, stifle your opponent’s ability to have the ball, and get into goal-scoring positions. Guardiola’s City are the best in the world at this, and Arsenal need to match them.

The modern goalkeeper needs shot-stopping ability, technique and composure on the ball to kill time and control possession, and quick-thinking and reactions to sweep behind a high defensive line designed to suffocate the opposition.

Raya improves on all these aspects over Ramsdale and is the keeper Arsenal need if they are going to challenge for the biggest prizes.  

Is goalkeeper rotation possible?

The debate surrounding Arsenal’s goalkeepers has prompted a more widespread discussion on goalkeeper rotation and whether a team can have two top goalkeepers competing for the number 1 spot. Mikel Arteta has expanded this conversation by mentioning his desire to even substitute goalkeepers during a match.

Following Arsenal’s victory at Goodison Park he spoke about regrets, saying: “One of them, it was in two occasions, I felt that after 60 minutes and after 85 minutes, two games in this period, to change the keeper in that moment. And I didn’t do it, I didn’t have the courage to do it.” He compared the substitution to switching formation or taking off an advanced player to hold a lead.

Whilst the theory behind substituting keepers makes logical sense, it may be a losing battle on the mental side

Whether Arteta, known for his deception during press conferences, was being genuine or not, a greater discussion has been opened regarding this idea. Whilst the theory behind substituting keepers makes logical sense, it may be a losing battle on the mental side.

Logically, Arteta’s theory is sound. If a club, hypothetically, has two strong keepers with different playstyles, a mid-game substitution would make sense, especially to hold onto a lead or adapt to different scorelines.

A team expecting to dominate a game could start a keeper who can sweep and distribute effectively, allowing them to control more of the ball and play a higher line with the reassurance of an aggressive keeper to cover the space left behind the defence.

If this team is leading with 20 minutes to play, substituting this keeper for another with greater shot-stopping ability makes complete sense. Ideally, your keeper would be able to master all aspects of the position which would make a substitution unnecessary, but these players are few and far between.

Despite making logical sense, the mentality side of this idea falls short. There are reasonable questions regarding the mental impact on both keepers, impacts on playing time and wage structure, fan reaction, and impact on the team’s overall defensive cohesion.

Goalkeeper is the position where mental assuredness and composure is most crucial, this idea of altering goalkeepers’ mid-game could simply add to the confusion in an already high-pressure situation.

Chopping and changing goalkeepers between or during games can harm team cohesion, and if Arsenal’s situation is any indication, it seems inevitable that one keeper will win out. Ramsdale may prove myself and others wrong, but one of him or Raya loses out regardless.

Both keepers may push each other, but will the dressing room disruption be worth it? Only time will tell. Top coaches and managers need to innovate to survive, but it seems football is not yet ready for two competing goalkeepers or goalkeeper substitutions. I’m sure Mikel or another top coach will prove me wrong.

Tomos Millward

Featured image courtesy of Nelson Ndongala via Unsplash. Image use license found here . No changes were made to this image.

In article image 1 courtesy of @arsenal via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

In article image 2 courtesy of @arsenal via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

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