Even when you take into account the fickle nature of football fans, the turnaround in opinion surrounding Aaron Ramsdale since first being associated with Arsenal has been nothing short of remarkable.
Last summer the club spent £24 million, with a potential £6 million more in add-ons, to acquire the services of relegated Sheffield United’s goalkeeper. Many fans and pundits, including me, were surprised by the pursuit and suggested transfer fee, but the purchase is proving to be a wise investment.
On paper, targeting a 23-year-old keeper with over 115 senior career appearances, who has represented England at all levels from the under-18s, and can boast winning player of the year in each of his last three seasons – all at different clubs – makes ample sense.
However, the consensus among supporters was of Ramsdale not being at the level required to play for Arsenal. The focus was centred around his relegation from the Premier League in each of his last two seasons, shipping over 60 goals in both campaigns.
A goalkeeper’s primary responsibility is to save shots. As fans, we tend to evaluate goalies based on the number of saves they make versus the number of goals they allow.
Keepers who frequently stand out by making lots of saves, very often do so because they play for teams that allow a lot of shots. Clean sheets are more common for goalkeepers who play behind a solid defence, but they’re not necessarily a measure of competence.
Expected Goals on Target (xGOT) removes these external factors by focusing solely on the shot quality rather than the opportunity (xG). This allows us to measure shot-stopping ability by using the difference between the goals conceded and the xGOT of the chances faced. A number one who allows less goals than their overall xGOT, indicates that they’re better than the average.
Aaron Ramsdale faced 61.3 xGOT at Bournemouth from 177 shots on target in 2019-20 and conceded 60 non-penalty goals. The following year at Sheffield United he faced 56.3 xGOT from 209 shots on target, conceding 57 non-penalty goals. Nothing collectively to suggest his shot-stopping was out of the ordinary.
Note: You can click on the images for the ultra HQ option (in a new window)
This seasons’ numbers paint a different picture however, as shown above.
The inconsistencies you would expect in a young keeper, shown in his recent wobbles in form are present. However, his outstanding performance away at Leicester, where he made 8 saves, preventing over 2 goals according to xGOT, combined with his overall good form, have resulted in him shutting out 3 goals less than expected.
Applying the metric across the division, Ramsdale ranks 3rd, and when you consider his age, he’s in a league of his own. Prior to this season, the youngsters’ save percentage had never gone above 71%. It currently stands at 80% exemplifying the improvement he’s making as he matures.
And of course, shot-stopping isn’t the only quality the modern-day goalkeeper needs in their locker. A criticism often levelled at Bernd Leno was his unwillingness to leave his line as the below visualisation demonstrates.
The selected goalkeepers above include some of the division’s finest, as well as Leno using data from season 20-21, and bottom-ranked David de Gea to add context.
While Leno’s average action distance is greater than Ramsdale’s, it’s merely the result of his inactivity in claiming crosses. Arsenal’s current number one ranks 8th (from 22 goalkeepers, minimum 900 minutes played) in generating the most actions off his line when calculated using deep entries against – a proxy designed to demonstrate how busy the goalie’s area is when considering the number of actions performed.
His visual above depicts a keeper who is dominant in his box, on his line, and at intercepting crosses (ranking 5th with 9.9% of crosses stopped).
These are traits demonstrative of mobility and bravery that enable him to command his penalty area, and relieve pressure from his defence. Zero goals conceded from set-pieces this season is no small coincidence.
Yet despite all of the qualities described so far, it’s his distribution that has left the biggest impression. The line-breaking passes, the clips to the wings, and the drilled dropkicks into space – arrowed deep within the opponents’ half, have shown a side to Ramsdale’s game that was previously unseen.
Playing out from the back has become the foundation of Arsenal’s style under Mikel Arteta, and the Englishman’s inclusion has been crucial in the improvements they’ve made in that area this season.
His long-distance kicking accuracy (passes over 36.5 metres) has improved year on year – from 30.4% at Bournemouth, 33.8% at Sheffield United and currently stands at 34.8%.
However, it’s his confidence in possession and willingness to take risks in initiating the attack that distinguishes him – his ability to break the lines and spot teammates by directing passes through the midfield has resulted in 22 passes being found in the opposition 3rd (ranking 6th).
Ramsdale’s importance in distribution and build-up play was never more evident than in Saturday’s win at Villa Park, in which he was unable to play due to injury. Leno’s distribution had long been an issue, as we were reminded with a lack of accuracy, despite his otherwise strong performance.
And so to summarise – at 23 years old, Aaron Ramsdale is not the finished product. As we saw recently against Liverpool, there will be further bumps in the road. While not all development is linear, he’s progressing at a steady rate and will save his team more than he will let them down.
His impressive 12 clean sheets are backed-up by underlying statistics, and have already surpassed any Arsenal keeper within the last six campaigns, with 10 games remaining.
In just seven months, the young Englishman has gone from transfer-rumour zero to red and white cult hero, and perfectly embodies Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, who continue to prove their doubters wrong.
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