Arsenal’s £30 million signing of Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United ahead of the 2021-22 season certainly raised a few eyebrows. Relegated in back-to-back seasons with Bournemouth and then Sheffield United, Ramsdale didn’t seem to have the calibre required to be a goalkeeper for a side with top-four aspirations.
Since then, though, Ramsdale has been an ever-present in goal for Arsenal and has brought much-needed stability to their defensive line. The long-term deal he signed a few months ago would surely imply he’s the club’s long-term first-choice goalkeeper.
Why, then, have Arsenal signed goalkeeper David Raya on loan from Brentford (with an option to buy)? They’ve already got a first-choice goalkeeper, right?
It’s not exactly a cheap deal either, with the eventual fee believed to be in the region of £30m assuming Arsenal make it permanent. That’s not exactly the sort of money you throw around for a backup goalkeeper. Nor would you imagine Raya would choose to leave the security of a first-choice role at Brentford to play second fiddle at Arsenal.
The easy answer is competition for places. In their efforts to chip away at Manchester City’s superiority, Arsenal cannot afford to stand still. In their transfer business so far – Jurriën Timber, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz – they’ve signed three players who can immediately compete for a first-team spot, though unfortunately Timber picked up a nasty looking knee injury in the opening day win over Nottingham Forest.
Raya would also compete for a place in the team, and his arrival should ratchet up the pressure on Ramsdale. Competition breeds excellence, and Arteta needs nothing short of excellence if his side are to truly compete regularly for Premier League titles.
Aside from that, Raya is an excellent modern-day goalkeeper in his own right. Arsenal have long been admirers, particularly as their current goalkeeper coach Iñaki Caña played a big part in signing him for Brentford from Blackburn Rovers in 2019.
His shot-stopping numbers were superb for Brentford last season. He was certainly busy – his 4.1 saves per 90 were more than any other first-choice Premier League goalkeeper – but his save percentage of 77% was also better than any of his peers.
But those figures don’t tell us anything about the quality of shots each keeper faced. We can use Opta’s expected goals on target model for that. According to xGOT, the Spaniard prevented almost six more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to concede. Only Fulham’s Bernd Leno (10.7) and Liverpool’s Alisson (9.5) could better that rate.
Ramsdale, on the other hand, actually conceded one more goal than he ‘should’ have done, which perhaps crystallises the sentiment that while he had moments of brilliance, he was also prone to runs of poor form. Even in 2021-22, where Ramsdale had an undoubtedly impressive debut season in north London, his shot-stopping came in at about the league average. He prevented just 0.6 goals more than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to keep out.
Ramsdale’s ability with the ball at his feet was one of the main reasons Arsenal targeted him, but that’s something Raya also provides albeit in a slightly different guise given who he plays for.
Brentford play far more directly than Arsenal. As a result, Raya was often asked to kick long towards Ivan Toney, both from goal-kicks but also in open play. 66% of his passes last campaign were long – the sixth highest rate of any Premier League goalkeeper – and a lot higher than Ramsdale’s 51%.
Yet despite that, the pair had similar passing accuracy overall (Ramsdale’s 63.4% vs. Raya’s 60.8%), and Raya’s kicking accuracy over long distances was particularly good. Raya completed 42% of all his long passes last season, which was among the best rates in the league. By comparison, just 29.2% of Ramsdale’s found a teammate – the third-lowest rate of any first-choice goalkeeper last season. Now some of that discrepancy will be because going long was an intentional ploy from Brentford and would have been less of a planned pattern from Arsenal, but the difference is still quite stark.
Raya’s accuracy over long range was a useful weapon for Brentford. The Brentford goalkeeper created nine secondary chances last season – the pass before the pass that creates a shot – four more than any other goalkeeper. He also completed 22 progressive passes – 16 more than any other keeper last season – showing how often Thomas Frank’s side used Raya’s boot to progress play upfield.
The below is just one of many examples of Raya’s long, raking passes setting up Brentford attacks.
On the cusp of half-time against Aston Villa, Raya looks up and spots Bryan Mbeumo one-vs-one against his full-back…
… and so he casually launches a pin-point pass onto Mbuemo’s laces. The Cameroonian is then matched up beautifully against his marker.
Brentford were so keen to use Raya’s boot that they often passed the ball straight back to him from kick-off:
Or had him come all the way into the opposition half to take free-kicks:
Brentford wanted Raya on the ball as much as possible last season. He was involved in 1,195 open-play sequences in 2022-23, more than any other goalkeeper in the entire division and 372 more than Ramsdale, despite the pair playing the same number of minutes.
That’s not to say that Ramsdale cannot fulfil this role, or cannot learn to improve his long-range passing. He’s only just turned 25 and is plenty young enough to develop his skills. But Raya can do this immediately should that be something Arteta wants to implement.
There’s also an often-overlooked attraction about signing Raya and that’s because he qualifies as a homegrown player. Arsenal’s old number two goalkeeper, Matt Turner (now of Nottingham Forest) doesn’t. This gives Arteta more flexibility within the squad in terms of ‘spending’ an overseas slot on an outfielder.
Raya is good enough to start for most Premier League teams, Arsenal included. Having the chance to eventually sign him permanently for what will end up being a £15-20m net spend when you factor in the Turner fee is smart business. He’ll be a more-than-capable understudy to Ramsdale and there is a genuine chance that he usurps him as number one.