David Raya’s performance came under scrutiny even as Arsenal defeated Manchester City as Mikel Arteta’s decision to bring him in ahead of Aaron Ramsdale remains a hot topic; Adam Bate examines the reasons for the change and the stats that support it…
Thursday 12 October 2023 15:11, UK
David Raya or Aaron Ramsdale? That debate continues but the mind of Mikel Arteta appears made up. Despite talk of rotation, Raya has started six out of seven games since making his Arsenal debut. Ramsdale’s only appearance came in the Carabao Cup.
Do not expect it to change. Raya is doing what Arteta demands.
The Spaniard had his awkward moments in the win over Manchester City after erring away to Lens in Europe. But with Arsenal unbeaten in the Premier League and level on points with the leaders, his manager is operating from a position of strength - and it shows.
"It is my fault. All my fault." That was Arteta's response to Raya's misplaced pass almost gifting City a goal on Sunday. "They can pull me up on it because I asked him to do that." Raya had the courage to keep playing even as supporters were audibly ill at ease.
"The crowd go like this with the players," said Arteta.
"I have seen it, the players start to kick balls everywhere and I said to him, 'you don't do that, make sure you don't do it', and he didn't do it. At the end, he got rewarded because the team started [to play] the game that we wanted to play much better, so a big compliment to him.
"I think he was excellent, the way he dominated his box, the way he came out for crosses and set pieces, the height that he played at."
There are a number of aspects to Raya's game that make him such an impressive goalkeeper. Arteta's reference to his willingness to claim crosses covers one of them. Since the start of last season, only Emiliano Martinez has claimed more catches in the Premier League.
There is also his shot-stopping ability, such a feature of his game at Brentford. According to the expected-goals data, Raya has kept out six more goals than the average goalkeeper would have done since the start of last season. Ramsdale has kept out three fewer.
On that basis alone, there is a case for switching goalkeepers despite Ramsdale's popularity. But it is the final factor in Raya's game, this issue of height, that is most significant. His distribution suggests he can join in with the possession as part of the back line.
It is a key point of difference and, perhaps surprisingly, one that was alluded to by Ramsdale himself within his remarkable first-person piece with The Players' Tribune in August. Principally, it was a moving account of personal trauma, revealing his life away from football.
But there were also insights into his relationship with Arteta. At the time of publication, this was framed as a positive. In the current context, it hints at the ideological differences between the pair, the challenge of adjusting to demands that felt counter-intuitive.
"I remember him explaining to me that he wanted me to play a lot higher and a lot more aggressive. And so, every day in training, I would play higher and more aggressive. And he would say, 'No, no, higher.' Every day, higher. 'Yes. Yes. No. Higher.'
"It was brilliant, actually, because he let me explain my emotions about feeling a bit exposed in playing so aggressive… In the end, we were able to come to a middle ground where I wasn't overthinking out there, and the results spoke for themselves."
The results did indeed speak for themselves. Arsenal's improvement was marked and Ramsdale was integral to that. But Arteta's decision to invest in a new goalkeeper also speaks for itself. His principles are non-negotiable. There is no 'middle ground' with him.
Arteta is obsessed with detail and it is natural that he wants his goalkeeper to play exactly the style of football that he wants. Finding a goalkeeper better suited to executing that style, rather than one uncomfortable with elements of it, is only logical.
The statistics suggest Raya is the superior goalkeeper with the ball at his feet. Second Spectrum uses tracking data to calculate the likelihood that any given pass is completed. By logging the success of actual passes, players' relative passing ability can be assessed.
Among the 15 goalkeepers to complete 500 passes or more since the start of the last Premier League season, Raya is one of only three - alongside Brighton's Jason Steele and Liverpool's Alisson Becker - to complete more than expected given their difficulty.
Maybe it is not surprising that there are so few. Goalkeepers are still not as proficient at it as outfield players. And yet, among those 15 goalkeepers, it is Ramsdale who ranks bottom, his pass completion rate almost four percentage points lower than the average player.
Arsenal will be aware of the statistics. They will know that Raya should improve their options in the build-up with his range of passing. But the change is not without its fascination because there is no guarantee that the new man can replicate these numbers.
While some of this will be familiar to him, much will still be new. A different club. A bigger club. A popular rival for his role sat watching from the bench. Some supporters already on edge when the ball is at his feet. These are challenges for Raya, 28, to overcome.
He has played 568 progressive passes in the Premier League since the start of last season, the most of any goalkeeper. But that reflects the tactics of Brentford, where he was encouraged to bypass players in attempting to find Ivan Toney in attack.
Now, he must adjust to a different approach, pass shorter and provoke pressure. Already, the statistics show that 40 per cent of his passes as an Arsenal player have come while under pressure compared to 29 per cent last season when he was at Brentford.
These nuances mean there are no guarantees. Raya will need to remain confident in his own abilities and retain the backing of his new boss. But there is sound logic to his inclusion. He is Arsenal's No 1 now. And he is Arsenal's No 1 for a clear reason.