Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta felt compelled to defend goalkeeper David Raya after the Gunners ended their 12-game losing streak against Manchester City to defeat the Premier League champions 1-0 on Sunday. “I think he was excellent,” Arteta said. “The way he controlled the ball, how dominant he was and how high he played. I love players with courage.”
Arteta has made a big call over the Brentford loanee this season, choosing to replace previous No. 1 Aaron Ramsdale — a significant figure in Arsenal’s title challenge last term — in favour of a different kind of player. Raya is the ultimate modern goalkeeper: comfortable with the ball at his feet and capable of adding a new attacking dimension to the team.
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Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is attempting to make a similar transition, with André Onana arriving from Inter Milan to replace David de Gea this summer. But while ball-playing goalkeepers have been transformative at Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League — Éderson and Alisson Becker have been crucial to their clubs’ respective successes — switching from a traditional ‘keeper to a more-rounded footballer in goal is not a quick fix. Both Raya and Onana have found themselves in the eye of a storm at their new clubs already.
In the game against City, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville described Raya as a “nervous wreck” during his commentary of the game for Sky Sports. Meanwhile, the Arsenal supporters inside the stadium made their agitation clear whenever the ‘keeper had the ball at his feet by raising the volume level with shouts of “Get rid of it,” “What are you doing?” and several expletive-laden expressions of alarm.
Having almost conceded a first-half goal when his clearance was blocked by an onrushing Julián Álvarez inside the six-yard box, Raya set the tone for a difficult afternoon in which his presence in the Arsenal goal, ahead of fans’ favourite Ramsdale, was once again a major talking point.
With 19 goals in 10 games conceded so far, Onana’s start to life at United is prompting similar levels of scrutiny. Not only because the Cameroon international has made a number of high-profile mistakes leading to goals, but also because he has taken the place of De Gea who, despite an error-ridden final season at Old Trafford last year, continues to be regarded with affection by many United supporters following his departure at the end of his contract in June.
Raya and Onana are both highly rated goalkeepers. Raya has been one of the most consistent in the Premier League over the past two seasons for Brentford; Onana enjoyed success at Ajax and Inter before being identified as De Gea’s replacement by Ten Hag.
Crucially, Raya and Onana have the absolute backing of their managers, with both Arteta and Ten Hag wanting a goalkeeper who can give their team greater control of the ball. In turn, that means they can set up to defend higher up the pitch and look to the goalkeeper to beat an opponent’s attacking press with pinpoint distribution from long and short passes.
That is the ideal scenario, which has been delivered by both Ederson and Alisson for their clubs, but even those two have had their meltdowns, when they have been overconfident on the ball or too keen to race out of the penalty area to try to snuff out an attack.
When Pep Guardiola took charge at City in the summer of 2016, his first decision was to replace title-winning goalkeeper Joe Hart, who was England’s No. 1 at the time, with Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo. Guardiola wanted to oversee the same transition that Arteta and Ten Hag are attempting now, but City weren’t ready for the change. Bravo often exposed the deficiencies in defence by playing his teammates into trouble with risky passes in dangerous areas or sparking confusion with his positioning in the defensive third.
Now, City’s defenders are totally comfortable when Ederson does anything similar because Guardiola has assembled a squad of players who can play with a ball-playing goalkeeper. And they have had over seven years of practice with someone like that behind them.
Raya only arrived at the Emirates in mid-August and did not make his debut until mid-September, so the opportunity for the keeper and his defenders to familiarise themselves with each other has been minimal. And it shows. Arsenal do have defenders who are good enough on the ball to adjust to having Raya behind them, rather than Ramsdale, but it will take time.
Onana has a different problem at United in that the majority of his defenders aren’t comfortable on the ball. When Onana passes to the likes of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Diogo Dalot or Victor Lindelöf, he is giving the ball to players who don’t want to receive it in the defensive third of the pitch. Having had De Gea in goal for the past decade, United’s players have grown accustomed to a keeper who rarely left his penalty area, so Onana’s confidence in rushing out it is another issue they have to take into consideration.
The secret to success with a ball-playing goalkeeper is having defenders who are supremely confident and comfortable on the ball. Arsenal have the players to make it work; United arguably don’t. But the reality for both teams, and any other club that wants to try it, is that it takes effort from more than just the goalkeeper for it to reap rewards.