Monday, April 22, 2024

What has changed with Raya in goal?

When Arsenal bought David Raya during the summer, it always felt ominous for Aaron Ramsdale in my view. Arsenal awarded Ramsdale a new contract during the summer and there is little doubt in my mind that Arteta and the coaching staff were happy enough for Ramsdale to be the long-term number one and any issues they felt he had could be worked through with coaching.

Raya became available fairly surprisingly with Spurs and Chelsea both in need of new goalkeepers but both passing up on Raya. The signing might have been opportunistic but I think it clearly happened because Arteta feels Raya is better suited to what he wants his team to be. I think there are a number of soft factor arguments around this that I would not entirely dismiss out of hand, even if I don’t entirely subscribe to them.

It is a big call to make, Ramsdale certainly wasn’t a major weak link so I think it is reasonable to ask whether the tactical upheaval is worth the level of potential disruption. It has certainly become a major talking point in the media (and this is the second column I am writing about Raya in three weeks so I cannot exclude myself from that in any good conscience).

I wrote a column a few weeks ago forecasting that the Occam’s Razor explanation was that Raya will be Arteta’s number one and I think it’s safe to say now that that is what has happened. I covered the reasons I believed Raya had been signed in that column and won’t rehash them here. However, I do think it is worth looking at Raya’s performances and how things Arsenal have changed with the Spaniard between the sticks.

I am conscious that I am writing this after Raya made a fairly costly error against Lens on Tuesday evening but I think Arteta will tolerate that distribution error from Raya. When quizzed on it in his post-match press conference, the manager was certainly very abrupt with his answer.

on if it was disappointing to see David Raya’s error in distribution for the goal:
No.

The reason I think Arteta will tolerate the error is because it was a technical error, Raya was attempting the kind of pass he is being asked to play. My theory on why Ramsdale lost his place was because he was, essentially, going rogue. Ramsdale developed a tendency to go long too often when the team came under pressure, which resulted in loss of concession and opponents being able to build momentum.

There has, for better and for worse, clearly been a focus on the team exerting greater control over games this season. I am certain that Arteta will have rewatched the Liverpool and West Ham away games from April regularly this summer, looking back at how Arsenal coughed up two goal leads, allowing both teams and their crowds back into the game.

Arsenal haven’t conceded a goal away from home domestically so far this season and this has been, in part, because they have strangled teams by retaining the ball. In the previous column from a fortnight ago, I talked about how Ramsdale played nine long passes after Tomiyasu’s red card at Selhurst Park in August when the team came under pressure with a slender advantage. Seven of those long passes went to a Crystal Palace shirt.

Arsenal have averaged 61.9% possession this season (I haven’t included the Community Shield here), with the average possession away from home at 62%. Last season that figure was 59.3% overall and 55.6% away from home. Clearly, we are dealing with a smaller sample size this season but, especially away from home, I think there is a clear emphasis on ball retention as a means of protection. (Of course, this has been compromised in home games and in France by needless errors).

Playing Raya ahead of Ramsdale is part of this drive to reduce equalising factors in matches like emotion, chaos and loss of possession. The bare facts show you that Raya keeps the ball better than Ramsdale does. Ramsdale averaged 68.5% pass completion last season, Raya is averaging 84.7% currently. Again, there is the caveat that Raya’s sample size is far smaller and doesn’t yet include venues like Anfield or the Etihad.

Last season, Ramsdale was attempting 5.16 short passes (defined as a pass between 5 and 15 yards by FBref) per 90. Raya currently attempts 10.7 per 90. That is a very distinct shift and it’s very deliberate. Arteta wants Raya in goal because he can operate like another centre-half in possession when the Gunners want to bait the opposition press and draw them out a little. Ramsdale is less comfortable in this aspect of the game.

Spurs had a reasonable amount of success pressing Raya onto his weaker left foot, resulting in some concessions of possession. Arsenal’s response against Bournemouth was instructive. They often dropped Raya even deeper into his penalty area and dared Bournemouth, who pride themselves on being a pressing team, to come and meet him.

There are two dominant positions we are seeing Raya take up in possession. Often, we are seeing him over at left centre-half in build-up. With Zinchenko inverting into central areas, it means Gabriel shifts towards the touchline. Raya is often playing like a left-sided centre-half between Saliba and Gabriel. Here are some examples.

Saliba passes the ball to Raya here and we see he is essentially the left centre-back, Gabriel is at left-back with Zinchenko in midfield. Raya gestures for Rice to move to the left to take his marker with him, Zinchenko knows what is going on and asks Raya just to delay because he is going to take a marker with him too.

Zinchenko takes Lewis Cook for a walk, which clears some space for Odegaard.

And that’s where Raya sends his pass where there is more space, higher up the pitch. He deserted his goal to create this angle because he is turning the back three into a back four. One of the reasons that I think Arteta will be relatively unconcerned about Raya’s error in Lens is because it was clearly from a rehearsed play. We saw something very similar in the Bournemouth game.

He takes the ball from Saliba here again at left centre-half. We see Odegaard run over towards that side of the pitch, he wants to attract Bournemouth players with him.

With Rice, Odegaard and Zinchenko creating a concentration of players close to Raya, it opens up space on the opposite side of the pitch.

And now Ben White has lots of space to attack from the lofted pass. This was the play Arsenal were trying to repeat in Lens that went awry (a-Raya?) In the column from a fortnight ago, I highlighted how often Arsenal went back to Raya after taking the lead at Goodison Park as a means of strangling the game. He completed 12 of his 13 passes once the Gunners were a goal up.

All of which makes Raya’s error in Lens which, it has to be said, was absolutely brutally punished, unfortunately ironic. Long-term, I think Arteta will see it as good process, bad outcome which is why I don’t think it will harm Raya in his estimation. As well as seeing him pop up in this left centre-half position, we also see Raya baiting the press very often, sometimes very close to the touchline, daring opponents to enter his territory.

Here are four examples from the Bournemouth first half alone where he stands with the ball to bait the Bournemouth press in the style popularised by Roberto de Zerbi’s teams.

Observe how, in each of these images, Raya is standing to the left of his goal again. This wasn’t just a tactic for Bournemouth. Lens are also a high pressing outfit and we saw something similar.

In this example, Raya has the ball in his hands and drops it to the floor and then waits.

And waits. He wants the Lens players to edge closer to him so that Arsenal can play around the press. Here is another example from just 30 seconds later.

Here he takes the back pass, again rolls his studs over the ball and waits.

Look at how close the Lens players get before he decides to play the ball to Saliba.

Saliba quickly shifts the ball to Rice who has space to dribble out and Arsenal have exited. This is why Raya is playing, because Arteta sees him as an 11th outfielder, capable of behaving as a left-sided centre-half in possession, which plugs some of the gaps left when Zinchenko inverts into midfield and Gabriel moves to left-back.

We saw this far less with Ramsdale in goal, allied to Ramsdale’s tendency to go long under pressure. In short, it means that Arsenal have been able to go from this:

To this, in build-up:

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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