Is playing out from the back worth the risk? David Raya, Andre Onana and Robert Sanchez struggles won’t stop Premier League managers from giving goalkeepers licence to use their feet
Some of the world’s top ‘keepers have already made high-profile errors this season when trying to get involved in build-up play
The summer transfer window ushered in a new era for elite Premier League goalkeepers, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham all replacing their No.1s – at considerable expense in some cases.
Since then, each of the new arrivals, aside from Spurs stopper Guglielmo Vicario, have been placed under intense scrutiny. Andre Onana has endured the most challenging start, with the new United ‘keeper never far from the headlines in his opening months at Old Trafford. Questions have also been asked of Robert Sanchez at Chelsea who, after a bright beginning, made a game-changing error in Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal.
However, nowhere has the goalkeeping debate raged more aggressively than at the Emirates Stadium. Aaron Ramsdale is a popular figure in north London, but that did not stop Mikel Arteta pushing the club to sign David Raya from Brentford this summer.
Arteta has since been criticised for banishing the England international to the bench in favour of Raya, and the Spaniard’s shaky, recent displays have done nothing but added further fuel to the argument.
Why do teams play out from the back?
The common thread running through all of these clubs’ decisions to sign new goalkeepers is their desire to add a No.1 who’s comfortable with the ball. David de Gea’s lack of passing ability, for example, was a major bone of contention during his lengthy spell at Old Trafford, while Hugo Lloris was sometimes accused of indecisiveness in possession. In Chelsea’s case, they wanted to continue what Kepa Arrizabalaga had been doing. Arsenal wanted similar continuity.
‘Playing out from the back’ is not a new concept, but it’s become nearly omnipresent at the top level and beyond over the past five years or so. Only a handful of Premier League sides regularly play long from their goalkeeper, and even teams in the lowest reaches of the footballing pyramid, both in the UK and abroad, have started asking their stoppers to pass it short. It’s even infected this writer’s Sunday League team – to very mixed success.
Although it makes some match-going fans wince in the stands, the benefits of this style are clear. On the most basic level, playing out allows teams to control games and move up the pitch gradually while retaining their shape, making it easier to implement the coach’s attacking vision.
The goalkeeper being heavily involved in the first phase of this patient build-up is absolutely vital, as it gives the team in possession a numerical advantage. Shot-stoppers who thrive playing this style are rare, as they require strong passing technique, elite composure and the tactical awareness to think two or three passes ahead so their team can beat the opposition’s press.
Finding a player that ticks all of these boxes is hard: that’s why Alisson Becker and Ederson – viewed as extravagant overpays by Liverpool and Manchester City at the time – have proved to be excellent investments.
Arteta was brutal in the summer
Ramsdale performed better than many expected after joining Arsenal from relegated Sheffield United for £30 million ($36.7m) in 2021, but he remains some way off the level of those aforementioned Brazilians, and Arteta clearly felt an upgrade was necessary.
The Gunners were long-term admirers of Raya, and it had been clear for some time that he wouldn’t be signing a new deal at Brentford, so it was little surprise when he rocked up in north London. It was brutal for Ramsdale – who was soon dropped for the Spaniard.
Since that move, Arteta has been criticised from all angles. Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel claimed having two Premier League-level starters would lead to each player looking to “prove themselves” when selected, which could result in errors. Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino chimed in too, calling the decision “dangerous“, and referencing a similar situation he experienced at Paris Saint-Germain, when he had to keep both Gianluigi Donnarumma and Keylor Navas happy.
But he made the right choice
It may seem harsh, but it’s easy to see why Arteta took the decision he did. Statistically, Raya was leaps and bounds ahead of Ramsdale in terms of shot-stopping last season. The Spaniard prevented a total of 5.0 xG for Brentford, while his now-Arsenal team-mate let in an excess 2.0 xG. Raya also outshone Ramsdale when it came to dominating his box, claiming 8.7 percent of the crosses he faced – the second-highest in the Premier League – compared to just 5.8% from the man he’s replaced this season.
Raya also distributed the ball more effectively, registering far more successful passes and completing around 70% of his long balls over 40 yards – far more than Ramsdale. Even though Brentford were more set up to playing long than Arsenal were, this difference is striking and speaks to Raya’s strength as a ball-playing goalkeeper.
However, what should work in theory does not always in practise – especially in the Premier League pressure cooker. And since claiming the No.1 jersey, Raya has experienced a few shaky moments.
He was culpable for Lens’ first goal in the Gunners’ shock Champions League defeat earlier this month, failing to find Takehiro Tomiyasu when under pressure. Raya was shaky in the first half against Man City too, almost allowing Julian Alvarez to close him down and score in the first half. During that game, the Emirates crowd did not help his nerves, becoming increasingly unsettled as Arsenal played closer and closer to their own goal.
Then there was the Chelsea error this weekend, with Raya being completely wrongfooted by Mykhailo Mudryk’s cross-cum-shot. Passing straight to Cole Palmer on the edge of the penalty area in the same half did little to quell the uneasy atmosphere in the away end, either.
Arteta is happy with Raya
Despite these hairy moments, in other ways, Raya has been a roaring success for Arsenal – at least in terms of what Arteta wants him to do. His manager has consistently defended his new No.1 publicly, saying after the City game on the player’s risky distribution: “It’s my fault, all my fault. They can pull me up on it because I asked him to do that, especially against this team, you just have to do other things and you’ll get in big trouble.
“He’s got big ones, because the crowd go like this with the players. I’ve 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.'”
What Arteta has relished most from Raya’s introduction to the team is his ability to draw in the opposition, before firing the ball to one of his team-mates. The very best pressing teams, like City, are extremely hard to play through. Raya’s ability to remain calm and wait for the ideal moment to pass – often by using the sole of his foot to trigger the opposition’s closing down – adds another weapon to his side’s arsenal that Ramsdale hasn’t quite yet developed.
And, just as was the case last season, Raya has bettered Ramsdale on all of the aforementioned passing, saving and cross-claiming metrics, with the caveat that the sample size is much smaller.
It’s unsurprising that Raya’s mistakes have been placed under a microscope, given the size of a club like Arsenal and the contentious way in which he claimed his starting role. But, is it really a major cause of concern? Arteta doesn’t think so, and most of the evidence supports his view.
Where next for Ramsdale?
Of course, this does leave Ramsdale in a tricky situation. One of the things that’s been lost in the Arsenal goalkeeper debate is how competent a player he is.
Ramsdale is perfectly capable of playing for most Premier League clubs, which makes his current predicament all the more frustrating for him – particularly with Euro 2024 just around the corner. With Jordan Pickford set to start if fit, Sam Johnstone kicking off the season in fine form for Crystal Palace and Nick Pope playing regularly in the Champions League for Newcastle, the Arsenal No.2 could be forced to watch the Three Lions jet off to Germany without him.
A January exit is on the cards, but Arteta will be desperate to keep him around. What makes Premier League title winners so good is their ability to cope with absences without sacrificing their overall effectiveness.
In Ramsdale, Arteta possesses a tailor-made backup for Raya. Matt Turner was the understudy last season, and despite his strong shot-stopping, he never looked entirely comfortable with the Gunners’ build-up play.
Arsenal not the only club with problems
Should Ramsdale try and force a move, there is no shortage of Premier League clubs who can accommodate a reliable goalkeeper. Bayern Munich is an apparent option, too.
Chelsea have already been linked with the former Bournemouth man, after rather stumbling upon Sanchez as their No.1 in the summer. Much like Ramsdale when he first joined Arsenal, the Spaniard has exceeded expectations, but his error against the Gunners’ last weekend has raised questions over whether someone who was dropped by Roberto De Zerbi – one of the most fervent believers in playing out from the back in world football – is good enough to play Pochettino’s style.
Then there’s Onana, who seemed an ideal fit for the next stage of the Erik ten Hag project, but has made a poor start to life in England. Whether it be failing to make routine saves, or testing the hearts of United supporters with his kamikaze passing, the Cameroonian is clearly suffering a crisis of confidence.
Don’t expect anything to change
Again though, both Onana and Sanchez have been very publicly supported by their managers. Ten Hag blamed his marquee signing’s struggles on a string of defensive injuries. “Every time you have a different defensive line in front of you, it is not helpful,” he said. “You do not get the routines. That is a problem but you have to deal with it – that is the situation we are in. It did not help with his integration.
“Sometimes there are different combinations who have not played so often together, so sometimes you get hesitation and in such details opponents take benefits from it.”
Meanwhile, Pochettino explained Sanchez’s Arsenal error away with similar gusto: “I think it can happen, this type of situation and you have to accept it. Today, we are in an era of football that the way we want to play from the back.”
These attitudes are typical of elite managers in 2023. Yes, involving your goalkeeper in build-up can lead to distrust results, but on balance the advantages far outweigh the risks, so this occasionally toe-curling aspect of the game isn’t going anywhere.