Mikel Arteta ushers in the era of goalkeeper rotation… or has he?

Perched forward in his chair, scanning the room as if to assess his persuasiveness, Mikel Arteta delivered a post-match explanation that will in future come to be viewed as one of two things: a visionary reframing of the idea that number one status belongs to a single goalkeeper, or a sticking plaster on a delicate situation too fragile to unpack.

In the here and now, surprise at the decision to give summer signing David Raya his debut in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Everton at the expense of Aaron Ramsdale — the first-choice for the last two seasons — was met with the rationale that convention is perhaps too ingrained regarding goalkeeping hierarchy.

“It’s something that has been historically done like this, but I cannot have two players like this in one position and not play them. David has tremendous qualities like Aaron has, like Karl (Hein) has, but we have to use them,” he said.

“I’m a really young manager. I’ve been in this job three-and-a-half years and I have few regrets with what I’ve done. One of them was that in two occasions, I felt between 60 minutes and 85 minutes, in two games, to change the keeper in that moment. But I didn’t do it.

“I didn’t have the courage to do it. But I’m able to take a winger, a striker, or put a central defender on to drop to a (back) five and hold that result? We drew those games and I was so unhappy.

“Someone is going to do it. Maybe it (the reaction) will be ‘That’s strange — why?’… Why not?”

That is the tension at play. Arteta argued that the reaction to rotating goalkeepers should be proportionate to the act of swapping Eddie Nketiah in for Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira for Kai Havertz or Takehiro Tomiyasu for Oleksandr Zinchenko.

But the norm of a team having a preferred goalkeeper is one that has been almost universally adhered to — and is why the signing of Raya from Brentford was always going to lead to these questions being posed as soon as the Spaniard made his first appearance.

Only one goalkeeper can play at a time. Subbing them off during a game to suit certain circumstances is an option — bringing on penalty saving specialists before shootouts shows how things can become normalised — but it could signal to the opposition that Arsenal are fearful and bunkering down.

There would also be a human cost for the player having to walk off and this is where the proposal of an egalitarian goalkeeping division potentially comes unstuck.

If Nketiah’s form sky rockets Arteta could always change the shape or sacrifice a winger to fit both he and Jesus into the same team. Outfielders can invest in the idea of a squad game and of their role as ‘finishers’, because positions and systems are so malleable.

Is it really feasible to regularly alternate goalkeepers without an established pecking order? If one of them commits a major error does that then relegate them to second choice? Would it not create a lack of familiarity with their defenders?

Only time will tell, and whether Arteta’s rhetoric matches his actions. It is difficult to believe any manager, particularly one as driven as Arteta, does not have an opinion on which goalkeeper is overall the stronger option for most games.

(Stu Forster/Getty Images)

If Ramsdale does not play in Sunday’s north London derby, then it is only natural he may feel his role has been marginalised or that he is being gradually pushed out.

It would seem implausible that Arteta could navigate October’s run of games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Sevilla without conclusions being drawn from his selections. That is the true test of whether this theory has any longevity in practice.

However, if he does split the games with only the style of opposition as a potential theme then his stance will be a bold departure from the status quo.

Raya and Ramsdale are not exactly two diametrically opposed profiles, though. The former enjoyed a stellar last season at Brentford, preventing the equivalent of five extra goals based on chance quality and shot placement, while his long kicking accuracy is an attribute but the margin there is something influenced from Brentford’s comparatively direct play.

Raya vs Ramsdale 2022-23





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Raya’s strength collecting crosses helped against a big Everton team, presumably part of the logic behind his start. He was aggressive coming off his line and dealt with them confidently, as he had been doing in the warm-up with goalkeeping coach Inaki Cana, who was backing in to recreate a game-like scenario.

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Raya looked comfortable taking crosses against Everton on Sunday (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Raya’s positioning at kick-off was extremely advanced and that set the tone for an immaculate display with his feet. He got a thumbs up from Zinchenko when he calmly played into midfield to create a triangle, zipped a lovely pass down the line to Ben White under pressure and showcased his pinpoint diagonals to the full-back on several occasions, which helped Arsenal escape pressure.

Arteta’s viewpoint is certainly thought-provoking and forces us to consider whether a settled goalkeeper being the foundation of a successful team is one of those truisms that has gone unchallenged for too long.

Innovation always tends to be looked upon as idiosyncratic until it is proven to be successful, then accepted and adopted by the mainstream. Inverted full-backs and players laying down horizontally behind the wall at a free-kick are two examples of orthodoxy being challenged.

Achieving parity with two goalkeepers feels like a more difficult task because it is involves egos, fairness and emotion.

Luis Enrique managed to appease both established number one Claudio Bravo and Marc Ter Stegen across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, which brought five trophies from six. Bravo played La Liga matches and Ter Stegen played the cup competitions.

Would Ramsdale, having played a part in Arsenal securing Champions League football and penned a deal until 2026 in May, be happy with an arrangement that saw him miss out on the biggest stage of them all? No. Would he be happy not playing in the league when they’re aiming to chase down City? No.

But neither did Raya make the move across the capital to sit on the bench as deputy. Both players have Euro 2024 around the corner.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst used the same approach as Arteta at Rangers when Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin were vying for the starting spot last season but one bad mistake from McLaughlin in an Old Firm derby defeat saw the manager publicly assert that McGregor was in fact the recognised first choice.

It created the perception of indecision and a man overthinking matters but Arteta sees it as a ruthless way to drive standards higher again.

Ramsdale may have given his team-mates high fives as they emerged for the second-half while Arsenal posted a message on X with the caption ‘The GK Union’ but a manager usually has to divorce himself from the pretence that he can keep two young, ambitious keepers happy.

But if Arteta does not have to eventually pin his colours to a goalkeeping mast this season then he may have led the way on the sport’s next fashion.

(Top photos via Getty Images)

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