Aaron Ramsdale signed for Arsenal during one of the rockiest periods the club has faced throughout its long history. He was abused online, accused of being a fraudulent professional between the sticks and someone who was ultimately responsible for suffering back-to-back relegations with Bournemouth and Sheffield United, respectively. The hatred going his way from various sections of the Arsenal fan base was nothing short of deplorable. His reaction to the abuse, however, was admirable.
After taking abrasive action such as switching off his Instagram comments to limit the bombardment, Ramsdale took a step towards glory by displacing the Arsenal number one Bernd Leno. He came into the team off the back of three straight league defeats, zero goals scored and a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City. The pressure was mounting on manager Mikel Arteta and his players, and Ramsdale’s sighing only exacerbated the onslaught. As the startling line-up was announced an hour before kick-off with Norwich City arriving at the Emirates, the fans were shocked to see the Englishman’s name at the very top of the team sheet.
Ramsdale had come straight in, thrown in at the deep end with the mood at an all-time low. After two consecutive eighth-place Premier League finishes, Arteta’s rebuild was truly underway as the players walked out to a chorus of groans from the home fans. Ramsdale, in short sleeves and looking white as a sheet, lapped the Arsenal half clapping the North Bank with his gloves gripped firmly between his fingers. He had a stern, hard-nosed look on his face as if he was about to compete in a Champions League Final. It was probably the biggest game of his career, but a free hit in equal measure.
Expectations were so low that Arteta and his players couldn’t possibly fail to exceed, and Ramsdale’s arrival was symptomatic of the mood at the time. Almost immediately, the home crowd turned. A risky back pass from Gabriel Magalhães was met with the bustling feet of his goalkeeper, who evaded the Norwich press with a simple shimmy away into the vacant space.
Ramsdale cut through the ball perfectly, executing a beautiful pass out to debutant Takehiro Tomiyasu on the right-hand touchline. It was a sign of things to come for the Gunners’ new keeper with the signing ultimately proving to be a shrewd one in the long-term for Arteta.
It was no secret that Arteta had been a fan of Ramsdale for a while. The Spaniard had been known to have liked the goalkeeper during his time at Bournemouth, yet despite the interest, Arteta and his coaching staff had their eye on someone else – David Raya. The mooted signing of Brentford’s golden piece had been in the works throughout the summer of 2021, with some media outlets even suggesting Arsenal had approached Brentford with an offer for Raya.
Seemingly, Arsenal balked at the price and pivoted in a different and, most importantly, unexpected direction. The club had already spent the best part of £100m on the acquisitions of Brighton centre-back Ben White, Real Madrid’s Martin Odegaard, Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht and Nuno Tavares from Benfica in what had been a whirlwind summer of ins and outs at London Colney.
Arteta and Technical Director Edu weren’t ready to stop there, however, and Ramsdale finally arrived at the club with a point to prove following weeks of speculation. A total summer spend of over £125m on players was essentially unheard of at Arsenal, barely breaking £90m in previous summers. The intention of Arteta, Edu and Arsenal owners Kroenke Sports Entertainment was clear – to bring the club back to the top and amongst the elite. It was a window that may go down as one of the best in the club’s history.
Pretty swiftly, the Arsenal faithful were on board with Ramsdale. His charismatic and humorous personality endeared the fans to a point where he became an iconic figure. Even the most obtuse observers were struggling to pelt him with abuse and disloyalty, as there really wasn’t anything to dislike. The Gunners were soon on a good run of form, winning six of their next eight fixtures starting with a 1-0 win over Norwich City at the Emirates in Ramsdale’s first game for the club.
Despite the subsequent 4-0 humiliation against Liverpool at Anfield, fans and media outlets were prepared to point the finger at Arteta when he squared up to Jurgen Klopp at 0-0, which ultimately inspired the home crowd to lift their team and pile the pressure upon the Gunners. The Arsenal keeper had won both the fans and the media over, and in spite of the Gunners falling away towards the end of the season and missing out on the Champions League places, the future looked bright for Arsenal with Ramsdale right at the heart of it.
His impressive form continued throughout the majority of the 2022-2023 campaign, as the club spent nearly 300 days at the top of the Premier League table before being pipped to the title by holders Manchester City. Ramsdale’s form towards the end of the season, however, was called into question after several high-profile errors that contributed to Arsenal’s demise.
Most notably, a simple pass out to Thomas Partey was intercepted by Southampton midfielder Carlos Alcaraz inside the first minute only for the Argentine to slot home into an empty net, leading to a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to a side in acceptance of their own fate – relegation. The mistake will live long in the memory of Arsenal fans, but it might not have been the only reason as to why we are where we are now.
Fast forward to October 2023, Ramsdale finds himself sat firmly on the Arsenal bench. The former Sheffield United and Bournemouth stopper is, ironically, being lauded as the best thing since sliced bread by those who were so very against the club signing him in the first place.
His mood hasn’t changed, according to Mikel Arteta that is anyway, but the summer signing of David Raya has really thrown the cat amongst the pigeons for the Spaniard. A decision met with 360-degree, full-circle criticism from most of the football world, Raya has taken over from Ramsdale – something that even the most argumentative of individuals wouldn’t have predicted.
The Spanish goalkeeper, signed on a season-long loan with a reported obligation to buy for £30m, has produced a number of questionable performances for the Gunners since his debut in a 1-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park. Despite his clear ability with the ball at his feet, he has been criticized for his lack of awareness when being pressed by opposition players and a failure to command his box, most recently in home fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. The reality for Arteta and his goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña is very different – they simply love Raya.
Raya’s relationship with Caña has seemingly gone under the radar since the Spaniard signed for the club. The pair were together at Brentford, and Caña adored Raya. Essentially becoming Caña’s protégé, Raya exceeded expectations and was deemed to be untouchable with potential suitors circling. His kicking ability and calmness under pressure were traits often exhibited with Ivan Toney in Thomas Frank’s side, but since the Brentford striker was banned for eight months for admitting over 200 charges of betting breaches, Raya has been seeking new endeavors.
It is important to specify that Toney’s absence cannot simply be the sole reason for Raya’s desire to move on, but it cannot have helped Brentford’s case to keep him at the club. Since his debut for the club, the former Blackburn keeper has equalled Ramsdale’s pass percentage completion for the season. According to FB Ref, Raya sits at a respectable 81.0% with Ramsdale’s being very similar at 81.2% in the same amount of games played in the Premier League.
In comparison to last season, Ramsdale edged the Spaniard with 68.5% pass completion whereas Raya managed 64.3%. However, this data can carry a confusing and misleading outcome, as both Brentford and Arsenal play very different types of football. To put it into perspective, Raya attempted 1026 long passes compared to Ramsdale’s 519, with the Gunners loanee completing 44.7%, significantly greater than the Englishman’s 35.8%. Of course, Arsenal’s data-led approach will always be in the spotlight since the club made the majority of their scouting department redundant back in August 2020, but these numbers simply show that Arteta has changed his expectations of what he wants his goalkeeper to do.
In a recent league cup fixture at Raya’s parent club Brentford, Ramsdale started between the posts for the Gunners side in a 1-0 victory – a scoreline becoming more and more frequent for an Arteta team playing away from home. The England number two completed just one of nine attempted long passes during a game state reflective of his own efforts. Brentford were piling on the pressure after Reiss Nelson had opened the scoring in the first half, yet Ramsdale decided to do the exact opposite of what his manager wanted him to do.
Arteta wants control, and lots of it. In this Arsenal team, if you cannot produce the goods that fall within the parameters of the Spaniard’s expectations, you are out. Symptomatic of Ramsdale’s predecessor’s situation, German Bernd Leno was removed from the side as soon as Arteta had found someone he preferred. A lot of groundwork seems to go into these signings, but the acquisition of Raya felt different, maybe more pointed.
Anyone who had access to social media at the time of the signing will have seen the manager presenting Raya’s ninety-one-year-old grandfather with a signed Arsenal shirt and a box of Gunners goodies. Signings are often heavily surrounded by various forms of content dropped in front of the eyes of the football fraternity, however, Raya’s signing was framed as if he would be a crucial part of the club’s future success despite the presence of Ramsdale.
Raya was nervy at the Emirates in the most recent fixture against Manchester City. The crowd got on to him as he struggled to cope with the intensity of the European champion’s press. Early on, Raya received a poor pass from Gabriel Magalhães with City forward Julián Álvarez closing down on the Spaniard, only for him to take too long and boot the ball against the Argentine.
Fortunately, the ball deflected into the side netting for a goal kick. Almost immediately after that, Raya made another poor pass beyond the positioning of Gabriel and William Saliba, aiming a pinged pass to captain Martin Ødegaard, but Nathan Aké pounced with momentum to win the ball back for the visitors on the halfway line. The collective groans continued.
Although Raya’s first-half performance was far from convincing, he responded brilliantly in the second. Adopting the David Seaman approach, Raya was commanding in his area and gave nothing for the likes of Álvarez and Erling Haaland to pounce on. His distribution improved and he looked more comfortable on the ball, and his manager was largely impressed by the performance.
“I think he was excellent. He can misplace one or two passes”, said Arteta, bullishly. “I demand him to stop the ball when he needs to, to get clarity, to get understanding, to provoke the opponent. Overall, the way he controlled the box, the aerials, how dominant he was, how high he played; I thought he was excellent. I love players with big courage, and David certainly has [that].”
Although it appears there is now a solid first choice between the sticks at Arsenal, there doesn’t seem to be any animosity between Raya and Ramsdale. They get on well and Ramsdale was even pictured clapping his teammate after making an excellent goalline save to deny Brennan Johnson in the recent north London derby. Both Arteta and Caña are elated with the situation they find themselves in at present, as two of the Premier League’s most consistent goalkeepers battle it out for the shirt. How long this can go on for, however, is another question entirely.
With the European Championships just eight months away, both players will be looking ahead to how they will claim their spot as number one for their respective nations. If Raya keeps his place at Arsenal, Ramsdale will surely have to look elsewhere for regular game-time to try to convince the stubborn Gareth Southgate to change his mind on Jordan Pickford’s status as firm England number one.
From Ramsdale’s immediate perspective, his only option is to push himself as far as he possibly can to win his place back. This means making it impossible for Arteta and Caña to ignore his efforts, but whether he will be able to do so or not is academic at this point.
By: Tom Norton / @XTPer90
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Marc Atkins – Getty Images