Mikel Arteta has praised Aaron Ramsdale after joining Arsenal last week. The 23-year-old has been described as an “ideal” signing who will quickly win the hearts of fans. “I think they are going to love his personality, his character,” he added.
The first impressions were certainly positive in this regard. Images of his family standing proudly behind him during his unveiling warmed hearts. His introductory interview, which he spent largely smiling from ear to ear, struck the right balance between humility and ambition.
“I am looking forward to having a connection with the fans,” he said of playing at Emirates Stadium. “You will not see me back down from the challenges,” he promised his supporters. “I’m here to push him and take his jersey,” he added of Bernd Leno.
Ramsdale’s attitude is flawless but, for many, the skepticism that greeted his arrival from Sheffield United is still there.
A £ 30million deal for a young goalkeeper who has suffered consecutive relegations from the Premier League is a tough sell.
Indeed, at times last season, it was hard to imagine he would join a Big Six club at the end of it. Sheffield United paid £ 18.5million to re-sign him from Bournemouth, but replicating Dean Henderson’s levels of performance was probably never easy and it turned out.
Ramsdale had a rough start at Bramall Lane as the Blades found themselves stranded at the bottom of the table. The struggling keeper has become emblematic of the perceived poor recruitment that would pave the way for Chris Wilder’s departure.
At the start of January, Sheffield United had taken just two points in 17 games. Ramsdale was still awaiting his first clean sheet, as only two goalkeepers – Sam Johnstone of West Brom and Illan Meslier of Leeds – had conceded more goals.
There was no return for Sheffield United, their relegation confirmed in April with six games to go, but for Ramsdale the second half of the campaign has been a journey of redemption.
His improvement was spectacular, which ultimately earned him the club’s Player of the Year award – his third in three seasons, including the one he received on loan at AFC Wimbledon in League One – and even a late summons to the England team for Euro 2020.
His subsequent move to Arsenal, confirmed last Friday, has of course placed him under heightened scrutiny and his critics can find plenty of ammunition in the stats.
Opta’s expected goal data puts Ramsdale among the Premier League’s most porous goalkeepers last season.
He also dropped more high balls than anyone else (10), while only two goalies made more individual errors leading to opposing shots (six).
Arsenal, however, will have tried to see these numbers in context when assessing their decision for him.
After all, he was playing for a team lacking in confidence and behind a stripped-down defense of his most important player, Jack O’Connell, who was sidelined with a knee injury.
The circumstances were harsh and they had a psychological impact. “I had lost some confidence in myself,” Ramsdale later admitted.
Ramsdale is expected to benefit from better protection at Arsenal, who had the Premier League’s third-best defensive record last season, and while the expected goal data for last season is troubling, it should be noted that in their previous season campaign with Bournemouth, Ramsdale outperformed Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope and even Liverpool’s Alisson Becker in the same metric.
Arsenal are hoping their numbers for the 2020/21 campaign have been skewed by their rocky start. They will note that his six errors leading to shots occurred in his first 15 appearances and that of his 10 falls, seven occurred before the end of January.
Everyone at Sheffield United was already aware of Ramsdale’s improvement at this point – his return to form was a rare positive in a season of conflict and instability – and in February he also gained recognition from the outside the club.
“He makes stops that he is not allowed to make,” said Air sports expert Graeme Souness after Ramsdale single-handedly kept Liverpool at bay with a series of excellent saves at Bramall Lane. “Incredible” is how Jurgen Klopp described his performance.
For Arsenal, who were obviously following his progress closely at the time, his age is another important consideration.
Having only turned 23 in May, Ramsdale is extremely young in terms of a goalkeeper. There is considerable room for improvement and yet, as Arteta noted last week, he has already amassed “enormous” experience.
Indeed, just nine days after his 23rd birthday last season, Ramsdale became the third youngest goalkeeper in Premier League history to reach 75 appearances in the competition.
Only Scott Carson and Joe Hart reached this milestone at a younger age and the other players who came close – including David de Gea, Shay Given and Petr Cech – all went on to have successful careers at the highest level.
The omens are good for Ramsdale and the players and coaches who know him best are convinced as well.
“He’s just going to keep getting better and better,” said Paul Heckingbottom, acting manager of Sheffield United after Wilder left last season. “What he has done over the past two years shows everyone his quality,” said Asmir Begovic, his former team-mate at Bournemouth.
Arsenal are counting on Ramsdale to continue to develop and improve as he did in the second half of last season, but the £ 30million prize puts him among the most expensive goalkeepers in the world and with it a new level of pressure and expectations.
Arteta will be heartened by the mental courage Ramsdale showed in going through tough times last season. But a lot will depend on how he cope with the move to a bigger club – especially given the team’s need for immediate improvement.
Indeed, if Leno produces more performances as unconvincing as his performance against Brentford on Day 1 of the season, Ramsdale will have to be ready to go.
He will also have to adapt to another way of playing. Arteta is said to be a fan of the Ramsdale cast, especially at long distances, but the Spaniard mainly asks his side to play from behind and that is unlikely to change.
Leno played 66% of his passes for Arsenal last season, according to Opta, while Ramsdale’s figure for Sheffield United was just 16%. Even in the previous campaign with Bournemouth he sent only 31% of his passes short.
This change of focus is just one of the many challenges he faces in his new environment. Arteta is convinced Ramsdale will be a success and the Arsenal manager is not his only admirer. But now it’s up to him to prove others wrong – and to justify the money spent.
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