When Aaron Ramsdale walked off the pitch at Hampden Park on 12 September life was pretty good. On the back of an excellent 2022/23 season he had started all four of Arsenal’s games in 2023/24. They were unbeaten. For his country he had just played in a hard-fought away win against the strongest Scotland team in decades, bringing himself into a conversation for the No.1 spot at Euro 2024.
Ten-and-a-half weeks later, Ramsdale is on his knees on the pitch away at Brentford holding on to the ball as if his life depended on it. To say his career depended on it isn’t a million miles from the truth.
The full-time whistle goes, he looks up and puffs out his cheeks, Arsenal have beaten the Bees 1-0. But Ramsdale looks physically and emotionally drained - cutting the figure of a 35-year-old goalkeeper, rather than a 25-year-old approaching his peak years.
It’s his first Premier League game since the start of September, he’s kept a clean sheet but he looks broken by what has happened between England vs Scotland and Arsenal vs Brentford.
Five days after the Scotland game Ramsdale looked vacant as he exchanged a handshake with England No.1 Jordan Pickford on the halfway line at Goodison Park. The pair were warming-up for their clubs ahead of Everton vs Arsenal. There was confusion on Pickford’s face during the conversation - his England team-mate, and the biggest threat to his England shirt, had been dropped by Mikel Arteta.
It was a surprise to most, not least Ramsdale. Minutes before kick off Arsenal’s official X account posted a picture of Raya and Ramsdale hugging with a message 'The GK union'. 'Nothing to see here' was the hidden message from the Arsenal camp. David Raya made his first start for Arsenal and the team won 1-0. He's been No.1 ever since.
The truth is, Raya’s presence between the sticks for The Gunners had been four years in the making. Arsenal’s Spanish goalkeeper coach Inaki Cana helped sign Raya for Brentford in 2019 and was later lured to The Emirates by Mikel Arteta that December. Cana and Raya share the same agent, Jaume Munell. Raya's move to Arsenal was a surprise on the surface, but not beneath it.
Munell told AFTV, in an exclusive interview that has since been removed by the fan channel’s website, that Arsenal’s interest in Raya pre-dates their interest in Ramsdale. “Arsenal showed interest for the first time three years ago in 2021. They tried to buy him but Brentford didn’t want to sell him at any price. After they bought Aaron Ramsdale, that was an easier option, but David has always been the priority.”
Inaki Cana’s style of coaching is supposedly very ‘intense’, a my-way-or-the-highway methodology according to some. You can’t help but wonder what he made of Ramsdale’s recent comments to Ian Wright on the Arsenal legend’s ‘Behind The Game podcast’ in November where he revealed: “If you ask me to concentrate on a game of football for 90 minutes I’m finished. I can’t do it.” Before going on to say that he likes to “get involved with the fans as a distraction”. Unorthodox to say the least.
It’s just Ramsdale being himself, but you can’t help but wonder if it did him more harm than good. Likewise, his dad leaping to his defence on the Highbury Squad podcast. Well-meaning, but possibly not the most constructive help.
Ramsdale is a character, and a likeable one. Popular in the Arsenal and England dressing rooms, and popular among fans who chanted his name throughout his return game at Brentford. The start was only handed to him because David Raya is technically on loan at Arsenal from Brentford with a view to a £27m permanent transfer in the summer.
Don’t forget Raya was close to signing for Tottenham in the summer, with Arsenal stealing in late in as Daniel Levy hesitated. Ramsdale had only signed a new deal at Arsenal at the back end of 2022/23 which underlines the last-minute nature of the Raya deal.
Arsenal hadn’t even budgeted for it, hence the loan deal with a view to paying Brentford next summer. Arteta saw a marginal gain, but has the move put an unnecessary spotlight on his goalkeeping department?
From Ramsdale’s perspective, his character has been tested to breaking point. His body language at Brentford suggested the situation has taken a toll. This game wasn’t an opportunity to win his place back. If he plays well and keeps a clean sheet, well that’s his job. If he has a beast and throws one in, Arteta’s decision is vindicated. As a goalkeeper, the game has to come to you, and playing for a team like Arsenal, that doesn’t happen too often.
Impacting the game as Arsenal’s keeper is more likely to happen with the ball at your feet, which is where Raya excels. Yet against Manchester City, the Spainard looked nervy, and Julian Alvarez almost blocked one of his attempted clearances into the Arsenal net.
But Raya persisted with his short passing, drawing praise from Arteta. “He can misplace one or two passes, and I demand him to stop the ball when he needs to. To get clarity, to get understanding, to provoke the opponents. Overall, the way he controlled the box, how dominant he was, how high he played (with his positioning), I thought he was excellent. I like players with big courage, and David certainly has big ones.”
During Ramsdale’s return match, he too was shaky on the ball. Dallying too long on a backpass after 12 minutes under pressure from Yoane Wissa. The ball eventually fell to Bryan Mbeumo who forced a goal-line clearance from Declan Rice. A big let off and one that would’ve have sent Ramsdale’s blood pressure soaring.
The camera immediately panned to Arteta who made a face I’ve seen my wife make a few times which has figuratively turned me to stone. But less than two minutes later Ramsdale fielded a backpass from Gabriel, put his studs on the ball, lifted his head and expertly arrowed a pass directly down the middle of the pitch to a team-mates’ feet. If Raya “has big ones” so too does Ramsdale.
After the game, and much cheek puffing from Ramsdale, FourFourTwo columnist and presenter Jules Breach twice asked Arteta directly about Ramsdale. The manager responded “I’m so happy with the team, with the way we performed, the clean sheet. I’m so happy with the way everyone played.” When Breach once again specifically asked about Ramsdale Arteta replied, “I think the team was exceptional today.”
Ultimately the Englishman can’t win in all this.
Arteta’s brutal post match side-stepping was a double down that suggests Ramsdale’s only option, if he wants to start matches regularly, is to seek a move away from The Emirates.
Ironically, when Ramsdale joined Arsenal in 2021 for an initial fee of £24m, the move raised eyebrows. Bernd Leno was the Gunners’ number one, a German international who they had paid £22.5m for three years earlier (a lot for Arsenal to spend on a goalkeeper) Leno also had two years left on his contract.
Ramsdale had just been relegated from the Premier League with Sheffield United, his second relegation season in a row. He would’ve probably settled for the No.2 spot at Arsenal but after a poor start to the season by Arsenal and Leno he was handed a start at home to Norwich and the No.1 spot was his.
Now he’s back on the bench. He was thrown to lions against Brentford and Arsenal won in a lose-lose game for the keeper. But Aaron Ramsdale is too talented not to get a fantastic move in January or the summer. That will be his chance for redemption - not a one-off game like the one at Brentford.
But the scars of this experience might take time to heal.
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