Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

In September, I wrote a piece affirming my belief that David Raya had been bought to displace Aaron Ramsdale as Arsenal’s number 1, despite all the talk of potential goalkeeper rotation and competition (conversation largely driven by Mikel Arteta). At the risk of sounding smug (!) I now feel vindicated in that view. Since I wrote that piece, Raya has started every Premier League game that he has been available for.

A mooted Champions League / Premier League rotation model did not come to pass either, Ramsdale only started the dead rubber away at PSV on match day six. In that piece from September, I drew a comparison to the way that Ramsdale was purchased to upgrade on Bernd Leno in the summer of 2021. I will start by saying that I think Leno was a much clearer point of upgrade in the summer of 2021 than Ramsdale was in the summer of 2023.

Arsenal awarded Ramsdale a new contract last May so they clearly felt that way too, that they could iron out any weaknesses or frustrations they felt with Ramsdale’s skillset. However, Ramsdale’s signing in 2021 drew plenty of raised eyebrows, he was not a particularly highly rated goalkeeper when the Gunners decided to part with £32m to buy him. But he quickly won the crowd over with both his performances and the connection he forged with supporters (and, by extension, his penchant for ‘connecting’ with opposition supporters).

Very broadly, goalkeepers tend to either fall into the categories of fire or ice as personalities and Ramsdale was very much on the fire end of the spectrum. He once said he liked to ‘banter’ with opposing supporters as a means of motivation. This season, Arsenal have largely moved away from ‘fire’ in their overall approach and more towards ‘ice.’

Gone are the blistering starts and the rollercoaster matches. If last season was a drunken punch up at a wedding (good fun so long as it’s not your wedding) this season is much more a case of everything in its right place. The signing of David Raya in goal is in line with that approach. Raya is not likely to stick his tongue out at the opposing fans after a series of acrobatic saves.

I think, however, Arteta’s thinking is that Raya contributes to shot suppression with his commanding ability off his goal line and his more developed sense of when to pass long and when to pass short. The ousting of Ramsdale in goal, understandably, raised a lot of questions earlier in the season, not least because a lot of Raya’s qualities are not always immediately perceptible.

It is the difference between a hard tackling defensive midfielder and one whose quiet positional sense is more difficult to appreciate. Arsenal have sought to turn down the emotional dial for much of this season and that is harder for fans to relate to for reasons that are entirely understandable. The goalkeeper is the closest player to the crowd for the most part and has the longest idle periods in the game, it can be an emotional position.

Jens Lehmann made a catalogue of howlers in the Arsenal goal during his tenure and lost his place as a starter a couple of times but his, shall we say ‘exuberant’ personality won him the affection of the fans and, with it, a higher tolerance for his foibles. When Almunia made an error, his skin turned grey and he looked like he needed a cup of tea and a lie down. When Lehmann made a mistake, he looked as though he was ready to shoot laser beams from his eyes.

But it isn’t just the fact that Raya is a slightly more detached customer than Ramsdale, there were challenging moments early in his tenure. He did not have a pre-season with the team and at times it really showed. For a goalkeeper who plays like an 11th outfield player those relationships really matter.

Undoubtedly, the jump from Blackburn to Brentford to Arsenal is a big one and the spotlight is far harsher at Emirates Stadium than it is a few miles southwest- especially when everyone, your own fans included, is scratching their heads at your presence. I think there is an excellent chance that Raya suffered a little imposter syndrome in the early weeks and months of his time at Arsenal.

While goalkeeping data is still in its infancy, a glance at his basic Brentford data shows you why Arsenal were twice convinced to try to buy Raya. Using 2022-23 data, his post shot XG was +5.0 last season (post shot XG basically measures how many shots you save versus how many you were expected to save so, put simply, Raya saved Brentford five goals). Ramsdale’s was -2.0.

Raya also completed close to 40% of his long passes compared to Ramsdale’s 25.4%- however, this should come with the very large caveat that Brentford have Ivan Toney upfront to aim at. One of the key pieces of data- and one I think we are really seeing come to life in recent weeks- is Raya’s proactivity from his line. He claimed 8.7% of the crosses he faced last season compared to Ramsdale’s 5.8%.

This season so far, in the Premier League, Raya is claiming 15.3% of the crosses Arsenal face, almost tripling Ramsdale’s number from last season. It’s not just the claiming of high balls that is crucial but the speed with which he releases the ball for counter attacks. We saw this most ably demonstrated with his catch and toss pre assist for Leandro Trossard against Crystal Palace recently.

Saka’s early headed chance against Liverpool on Sunday emanated from Raya claiming a cross from his line and hurling the ball to Martinelli quarter-back style. This is a skill Ramsdale has not really shown as part of his armoury. Raya has completed 74.9% of his passes this season so far, Ramsdale completed 68.5% last season. As time draws on and the sample size increases, it’s becoming increasingly clear why Arteta considered Raya to be an upgrade.

There is a soft factor component to this too. I think, as time has drawn on, the conversation around the situation has died down. This is both a reflection of the fact that everyone has had time to ‘come to terms with’ Ramsdale’s relegation and the fact that Raya is looking increasingly comfortable and adjusted, making it less of a talking point.

I don’t think the irritation is entirely vanquished. At half-time on Sunday I looked at my Twitter timeline shortly after Liverpool’s calamitous equaliser and was surprised to see the blame over the goal weighted far more heavily towards Raya than Saliba. While both parties bore responsibility, I think a good 80% of that blame belonged to Saliba.

I think there will be a sense of some supporters waiting for Raya to make mistakes but that will diminish over time and, come the summer, Ramsdale will probably move on and so will the discourse. It certainly took some time for Raya to find his feet, his hands and his head in the Arsenal goal but on Sunday I even saw him geeing up the Clock End crowd during the second half. He looked to me like a goalkeeper who has stopped apologising for being a slightly surprise guest at a dinner party and who has started to make himself more comfortable.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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