Mikel Arteta’s eyebrow-raising Arsenal selection call isn’t ridiculous - but the risks are plain to see
Arsenal dropped Aaron Ramsdale for the game against Everton, but is Mikel Arteta right to rotate his goalkeepers - or is it a disaster waiting to happen?
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It’s been coming from the moment that Arsenal announced the signing of David Raya on loan – Aaron Ramsdale, previously the Gunners’ undisputed number one, was on the bench for the 1-0 win over Everton at the weekend, with Mikel Arteta making it clear that it won’t be the last time that the England goalkeeper has to watch from the sidelines.
“I cannot have two players like this in one position and not play them,” said Arteta. “David has tremendous qualities, like Aaron has, we have to use them.”
Which is fair enough, not that anybody forced Arteta to sign Raya in the first place. Decades of established football orthodoxy has set in stone the notion that rotating goalkeepers leads only to inconsistent performances and a loss of sharpness, and that competition for the starting spot should occur on the training field, or in less important cup games – and given that the number one jersey has become more or less sacrosanct, one must wonder how Ramsdale will react on a personal level to having his position in the squad undermined.
Setting up a situation where a perfectly good goalkeeper finds himself unexpectedly in a rotation system will be a big test of Arteta’s man management skills. A goalkeeper who earns his place on the teamsheet typically expects to keep it for as long as his form remains good, and even if the logic behind rotating turns out to be sound, Ramsdale will need to have the right attitude to take it in his stride. Ramsdale has, thus far, declined to pass comment, not that he seems like the type to have a public strop.
And if Arteta is right that rotating goalies is the way to go – and perhaps it will inspire the two players to push themselves to improve more than would be the case if they felt settled in their spot – he will still create a tricky balancing act in making sure that both players get enough game time to feel that they aren’t getting the short end of the stick. The Spaniard is walking a fine tightrope and needs to be sure that the players in question can handle the situation from a psychological perspective.
Arteta even went as far as to suggest the possibility of making tactical goalkeeping substitutions in the future: “I have few regrets from what I have done. One of them, I felt that after 60 minutes and 85 minutes in two games, in this period, to change the keeper in that moment, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t have the courage to do it.
“Someone is going to do it and maybe it’s, ‘That’s strange.’ Why? Why not. Tell me why not. You have all the qualities in another goalkeeper to do something; something is happening and we want to change momentum, do it.”
And Arteta has a point in as far as that the taboo over substituting a goalkeeper is probably far too strong. If a winger or a striker struggles in a game, they are hauled off to give someone else a go instead, and nobody bats an eyelid. The same thought process being deemed inapplicable to goalkeepers, as if they are such precious little petals that their fragile egos could not handle a substitution, is somewhat nonsensical.
Except that when you have a footballing culture that has weaved the idea that goalkeepers can’t be substituted into its very fabric, the goalkeepers in question probably do feel aggrieved at the idea. A goalkeeper being taken off the field due to poor performance would be treated by fans and pundits not as a routine tactical manoeuvre but as a humiliation, and it will take some work for a manager to prepare his stoppers not to think that way themselves. After all, it’s not so long since Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be removed from the field in a League Cup final after Maurizio Sarri tried to take him off for tactical reasons.
Arteta is also right that goalkeeping substitutions can make tactical sense. Some are better at certain types of distribution, for instance, which could make a difference if a team needs to attack in a more direct manner, say, while others are better at dealing with different types of attacking styles. If the opposition start launching crosses into the box late on in a game, it follows that a manager should bring on a ‘keeper who’s better at handling high balls.
One issue with this approach for Arsenal, however, is that Ramsdale and Raya aren’t especially dissimilar. It’s hard to imagine a specific scenario in which the introduction of one over the other greatly changes the course of a game, unless one of them is having a bad day. Substituting one for the other could easily do more harm than good if the player being removed from the field takes it personally.
So while Arteta isn’t necessarily wrong to push back against the established goalkeeping order, it is a risk, and requires the players to have the right mindset to cope with any perceived slights. Arsenal captain Martin Ødegaard, at least, seems convinced that the boat hasn’t been rocked too hard yet.
“[Ramsdale] was there supporting us, cheering for us, helping us. He is a great character and he showed a very good response today by backing his team-mates, being there and giving us energy… We are lucky to have two such good goalkeepers and we will see who will play, but both of them are excellent."
Arteta, of course, knows Ramsdale well enough to make the judgement call that he can handle an unexpected and unusual situation. Raya, for his part, would have known what he was getting into when he signed his loan deal. This could be a very smart piece of work by Arteta that will improve standards and give Arsenal more options – but at some point it will come under pressure, especially if one player or the other starts playing especially well (or poorly) and rotating him seems foolhardy. There will be a point at which the two players can’t help but take their respective selections and exclusions personally. Whether Arteta can maintain that delicate balance remains to be seen.