Monday, April 22, 2024

Quicker than a Raya light

When Arsenal signed Aaron Ramsdale in the summer of 2021, eyebrows were raised. Bernd Leno was a competent, if not world class, goalkeeper and many felt the Gunners had more pressing areas to address with their money. There was also some surprise that Arteta plumped for a goalkeeper who had suffered two Premier League relegations to upgrade on Leno.

However, it was clear that Arteta felt Ramsdale would elevate Arsenal’s ability to build play from the back, not least with his long passing. In the 2020-21 season at Sheffield United, no Premier League goalkeeper kicked long with greater frequency than Ramsdale. When a team buys a player who leads any dataset, it is never a coincidence. It’s because they lead in an attribute that the coach feels is important.

Leno averaged 4.25 long passes per match in 2020-21 with an accuracy of 64.2%. Ramsdale averaged 10.29 long passes with a success rate of 68.9% in the same season. Leno passed into the final third 0.94 times per 90 with an accuracy of 34.3%, with Ramsdale managing it 4.4 times per 90 at a 68.3% clip. It is really obvious that the quality and frequency of Ramsdale’s long distribution was a significant factor in his recruitment.

Over at Manchester City, Arteta had seen first hand how Ederson’s ability to pick out passes over obscene distances created a new dimension for their attacks, especially against teams that pressed them high. In his maiden season in North London, Ramsdale attempted over 16 long passes per game, just under quadruple the number Leno had attempted the season prior.

On Sunday, Ramsdale sat on the bench for a Premier League match that he was available for for the first time since joining the club. Summer signing David Raya made his Gunners debut. Raya’s signing always felt at least a little ominous, despite the talk of dual number 1s and increased competition- only the latter of those observations have ever been evidenced on a long-term basis at a big club.

Raya’s selection at Goodison Park was clearly part of a tactical plan that involved starving Everton of possession by keeping the ball on the floor. For the first time I can recall, when Arsenal took kickoff and went back to Raya (they always, always go back to the goalkeeper from centre), the goalkeeper played a short pass. For the last two seasons, Arsenal have always gone long in this scenario, it is a deliberate, coached play.

Arteta also selected Fabio Vieira over Kai Havertz and won the game with a well-rehearsed short corner routine. Everything about their game plan was able keeping the ball on the floor and not lofting it into Everton’s tall and imposing backline. Raya completed 32 of his 34 passes which illustrates exactly why he was selected.

His presence was especially notable when Arsenal took the lead during the second half, the team increased the frequency with which they went back to Raya and played short. He completed 12 of his 13 passes after the team took the lead. Lewis wrote very well about Arsenal’s increased emphasis on control through possession earlier this week and that was clearly going through Arteta’s mind when he selected Raya at Goodison. When Arsenal were protecting a one goal lead at Selhurst Park a few weeks ago, Ramsdale made two successful passes out of nine, with all but one of those passes sent long.

Long-term, I think this is bad news for Aaron Ramsdale because if Arsenal are finessing their formula for greater control, it probably follows that Arteta wants his goalkeeper to pass short more often- especially when the team are away from home and looking to reduce the temperature of matches. Chaos was both friend and enemy to Arteta’s team last season and it is, by now, very obvious that the coach wants to take that equalising factor out of matches.

On Sunday, he felt Raya was better positioned to service that game plan, of keeping the home crowd quiet and taking away their hope. The other piece of bad news for Ramsdale is that it isn’t like he is a clearly better long kicker than Raya in any case. In fact, Raya is most closely associated with his long distribution at Brentford.

Many will recall his long kicking to Ivan Toney but he was just as proficient at finding Bryan Mbuemo in the channels. Brentford very much operated with a front two in Mbuemo and Toney, who were equally effective but for different reasons. At Goodison, Raya completed seven of his nine long passes. Obviously, it is incredibly early for me to make this determination but that doesn’t look a favourable equation for Ramsdale.

Arteta was looking for technique and composure at Goodison and he felt Raya was the better goalkeeper to deliver that. This is all pretty harsh on Ramsdale, of course, who has performed well since signing for the club. But Arteta has demonstrated his ruthlessness on several occasions. It’s also notable that Ramsdale’s performances away from home last season were better than his home performances.

On the face of it, that made the decision to introduce Raya at Goodison Park a surprising choice. Ramsdale caught the eye in several away games last season- like Spurs, Leeds and Liverpool, where he made a series of excellent saves. However, I think Arteta is thinking prevention over cure. He would rather his goalkeeper wasn’t deployed at all during pressure away matches when the home crowd is riled.

Everton are in a bad situation at the moment but Goodison has always produced one of the most partisan and intimidating atmospheres in the top flight over many years. On Sunday, it was as quiet as a grave. Arteta doesn’t want the home fans to have hope in these matches. I suspect that he would prefer them to be bored into a stupor as Arsenal pass the opponents into submission rather than aiming wanker signs at a grinning Aaron Ramsdale after he has made an acrobatic save.

Sunday was an ice over fire move and that seems to be the direction of travel for the team. What is interesting too is that Ramsdale has slightly reduced his reliance on long distribution over his time at the club. In his debut season, according to Fbref, he went long 16.6 times per 90. That dropped to 13.7 per 90 last season.

In his first four games of this campaign, with the usual caveats about a very small sample size, Ramsdale has attempted long passes 9.5 times per 90. He has clearly been asked to reduce the frequency of long passes just a tad. Arteta felt Raya was the superior option when he wanted the game to be a little calmer and Ramsdale’s profligacy at Selhurst Park might well have expedited the decision.

Of course, the manager talked about fluidity in goal and picking different goalkeepers with different qualities and how it shouldn’t be considered any different to other positions on the pitch. I certainly don’t think Ramsdale will be banished to the bench indefinitely never to be seen again. However, I suspect that the basic equation is this, Ramsdale is seen as a top-class long passer. Raya is seen as a top-class long and short passer and I wouldn’t mind betting that the Spaniard becomes the regular choice between the sticks for this reason.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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