If I can pinch and tinker with a well-known observation about title-challenging teams: you can’t win anything without a top-class goalkeeper.
A reliable No 1 is a key building block in any side that lifts football’s biggest prizes. Time and again the greatest managers win the Premier League or Champions League after a ruthless and necessary change between the sticks.
That is why Mikel Arteta has signed David Raya and left Aaron Ramsdale out of the past two Arsenal matches, provoking arguments as to the merits of a choice between what many consider keepers of equal standing.
If Raya starts this weekend’s north London derby – and on the basis of his first two appearances there is no reason to leave him out – the debate as to who is the real Arsenal No 1 ends. Ramsdale will have to adjust to spending a lot of time on the bench this season, and presumably speculation linking him with a move before the start of next season will intensify.
For me, it is a logical decision to pick Raya. Put simply, he is a better keeper than Ramsdale.
I am not saying Ramsdale is poor, or that he does not have potential to improve and enjoy a brilliant career at the highest level. The key difference right now is Ramsdale is a top-four keeper, not a title-winning one. Raya was hugely impressive at Brentford and deserves his chance to show what he can do at a club under greater scrutiny and pressure.
Raya has more of the qualities that Arteta is searching for to find those extra percentages that can make all the difference between first and second. He is superior technically, and calmer on the ball. Last year he stopped more shots than any Premier League goalkeeper with his save rate at 77 per cent to Ramsdale’s 68 per cent. One of the more relevant statistical comparisons is how much more effective Raya is at claiming crosses. He made significantly more ‘high claims’ than Ramsdale last season (52 to 22).
That will have been a factor in Arteta introducing him against Everton last week, a side whose only means of hurting Arsenal was through high balls and set-pieces. Unlike last season’s Goodison Park fixture, Arsenal were barely troubled.
If Arteta is true to his word and is prepared to make an in-game substitution of his No 1 – an idea that seems to have caused consternation within the goalkeeping union – you can see how it can work and make sense.
Top sides such as Manchester City and Arsenal tend to dominate possession for 90 minutes and are at their most vulnerable during frenetic finales when nervousness can take hold protecting a result, and their opponents will resort to more direct play and long balls into the penalty area. In such circumstances, why not turn to a keeper more adept at dealing with that physical, aerial challenge?
I love the way Arteta thinks about the game, challenging established ‘truths’. If a keeper looks like he is having a bad day, or seems especially vulnerable to corners or diagonal free-kicks, why wouldn’t you take him off in the same way you would a struggling defender? This idea that a keeper’s feelings will be hurt, or his confidence damaged by being subbed, needs to be put to bed. It’s nonsense. They are professionals like outfield players.
There has been a lot of sympathy for Ramsdale since Arteta signed Raya and made it known he was not joining as a back-up. The ferocity of some of the criticism baffles me.
During last season’s title run-in, Arsenal wilted during the pressure moments. The margins were small in some of those games in which they dropped critical points, and Arteta will have analysed in depth how and where they could have been better. The goalkeeping position was one of those areas.
Ramsdale enjoyed a superb game against Liverpool at Anfield, but his form dipped immediately afterwards. In the following three games against West Ham, Southampton and Manchester City he was poor. Again, this is not a case of singling him out to suggest if Arsenal had a better keeper last season they would have fended off City. There were several factors involved in their failure to get over the line. Nevertheless, when you have a studious coach such as Arteta who is always demanding more from himself and everyone around him, it is unsurprising he took his chance to sign Raya when he became available. If a manager’s instinct tells him he is not completely happy with his keeper, he will act.
In doing so, Arteta is following a well-travelled path - and one Ramsdale has previously benefited from when he was brought in to challenge and ultimately replace Bernd Leno.
Jürgen Klopp knows Liverpool needed to replace Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius with the current world No 1 Alisson Becker to win the Champions League and Premier League.
Pep Guardiola inherited a title-winning keeper and England’s No 1 in Joe Hart. One of his first statements as City coach was to replace him with Claudio Bravo, demonstrating he sought a different profile. When Bravo was not up to it, Guardiola acted decisively to sign Ederson, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in Premier League history.
Going further back, Chelsea’s defence rose a level after they signed Petr Cech, and Jose Mourinho upgraded to win the league again when bringing Thibaut Courtois in for the Czech. Even though I wind him up every week on CBS’s Champions League coverage, Peter Schmeichel was arguably the best Premier League keeper of all and a game-changing purchase for Sir Alex Ferguson. They struggled to replace him for years before Ferguson lured the established Edwin van der Sar to Old Trafford.
Arsenal fans of my generation may also hear the echoes of the past in Arteta’s ruthlessness towards Ramsdale.
John Lukic won the league championship with Arsenal in 1989 and Leeds United in 1992, but it does not mean George Graham was wrong to replace him with David Seaman. Seaman went on to win three Premier League titles at Highbury.
One of my footballing heroes as a kid was Neville Southall. He demonstrated as much as anyone how a world-class goalkeeper can change the course of history. Even many Liverpool fans will agree that had Southall not been injured in the 1985-86 season, we may be looking back on that as the year in which Everton won the league and FA Cup double. Southall was that important.
A world-class goalkeeper wins you games and trophies. An average one costs you them. Ramsdale sits somewhere in the middle. That is his problem if Raya continues to look the part. For Arsenal to catch Manchester City they have to be near-perfect in all positions. Being good is not good enough.