Aaron Ramsdale’s whirlwind start to the season continued with an England debut in Monday’s 10-0 win over San Marino. The 23-year-old was a spectator for much of it but it was still special. “I’ve been dreaming of this day for a long time,” he said afterwards.
His £30m move to Arsenal in the summer was met with scepticism following back-to-back relegations at Sheffield United and Bournemouth but Ramsdale is proving his critics wrong.
Since Mikel Arteta handed him his first Premier League start in a 1-0 victory over Norwich in September, Arsenal are undefeated. Six wins and two draws have lifted them from the bottom of the Premier League table up to fifth place.
The improvement has been dramatic, with five clean sheets and only four goals conceded in the last eight games, and Ramsdale, now a senior international targeting a spot at next year’s World Cup with England, has played a significant role in the transformation.
Distribution elevates Arsenal
One of the most striking aspects of Ramsdale’s performances this season has been his distribution. He has earned plaudits for his saves but he has been just as impressive with the ball at his feet.
His passing prowess was not immediately obvious at Sheffield United, where he was instructed to go long with far greater frequency, but at Arsenal there is an emphasis on building from the back and he looks a far more natural fit for it than Bernd Leno.
Indeed, while Leno is a fine shot-stopper, Ramsdale has offered considerably more composure and security in possession.
He is also far braver when it comes to threading passes through opposition lines to Arsenal’s deep-lying midfielders.
That is not to say he is only going short, however. In fact, Ramsdale has an outstanding range of passing.
“The way I play is I like to mix it up,” he said following his unveiling as an Arsenal player. “I’m very comfortable playing short and playing passes into midfield. Hopefully that’s something that I can bring to the team. But I’m not afraid of going long.”
Arteta has been eager to harness Ramsdale’s passing range and the result is a roughly even split between short and long passes. He sent 84 per cent of his passes long at Sheffield United last season but that number has dropped to 58 per cent at Arsenal.
Like Ederson at Manchester City, however, Ramsdale proves there is much more to “going long” than aimlessly hoofing the ball upfield. He gets considerable distance on his kicks but he is capable of striking them with precision accuracy too.
At times, he launches searching deliveries deep into opposition territory, but he has also shown a penchant for low passes fired into the feet of team-mates in and around the centre circle.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is often his target. In fact, of Arsenal players this season, only centre-backs Gabriel and Ben White have received more passes from Ramsdale in the Premier League.
He searches for others too.
Arsenal’s wide players Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are often seen drifting into space in central positions when Ramsdale is in possession and the goalkeeper is adept at finding them, allowing Arsenal to spring forward on the attack.
He is alert, too, when there are opportunities to break, quickly looking for forward runners in wide positions and sometimes throwing the ball into their path rather than kicking it.
Ramsdale’s overall pass accuracy rate of 60 per cent is relatively low among Premier League goalkeepers this season – a reminder that, at just 23, there is still plenty of room for improvement – but his distribution has already brought Arsenal a new dimension.
Shot-stopping outstanding too
Ramsdale’s passing has given Arsenal far greater fluidity in their build-up play and his reflexes have provided a formidable last line of defence too.
His stunning save from James Maddison’s free-kick against Leicester – described as “the best save I’ve seen for years” by Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel – will be hard to beat but there have been plenty more eye-catching interventions.
Indeed, that acrobatic stop from Maddison was one of eight made by Ramsdale during Arsenal’s 2-0 win at the King Power Stadium – the second-highest total by any Premier League goalkeeper in any game all season.
Since his Arsenal debut, he has made 25 saves in total and the underlying data underlines just how important they have been.
Indeed, according to Opta’s expected goals model, he has conceded nearly three goals fewer than he should have, based on the quality of shots he has faced.
Only Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy scores higher than Ramsdale for expected goals prevented this season. Mendy is also the only goalkeeper in the Premier League with a higher save percentage. He is one of only two – along with Manchester City’s Ederson – to have kept more clean sheets than Ramsdale.
“He just keeps surprising everyone,” said team-mate Saka recently.
Arsenal will be hoping he produces more of the same when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday.
A leader and fans’ favourite
It didn’t take long for even the most sceptical Arsenal supporters to warm to Ramsdale. That’s partly down to the quality he showed on the pitch following his introduction, but also his character.
His chest-thumping celebrations, both when Arsenal score and when the defenders in front of him pull off important tackles or blocks, have helped him form an instant emotional connection with the supporters returning to the Emirates Stadium.
It has been a similar story with his team-mates. “He’s full of energy and he can transmit that energy and that passion,” said Arteta recently. “The players have great chemistry between them.”
“He helps us a lot,” added centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes in conversation with Sky Sports last month. “He is a good communicator on the pitch.”
“When I came in, I got told to be myself,” Ramsdale told the Guardian in October. “My character is to be loud, be a leader and show passion. I also knew that I might have to shake things up in a positive way and my own way.”
He’s full of energy and he can transmit that energy and that passion. The players have great chemistry between them
Ramsdale plays with a smile on his face and is clearly popular in the dressing room but he’s also intelligent, with a level of tactical understanding and the kind of leadership skills you would not necessarily expect from a player of only 23 years old.
“He understands the game really well,” Anthony White, his former goalkeeping coach at Bournemouth, told Sky Sports in August.
“It’s like having a coach on the pitch. You can talk to him about any part of football and he understands it. In fact, he understands it better than many coaches can articulate.”
Those qualities have come across in many of his post-match interviews at Arsenal this season and they help to explain why Arteta did not hesitate to install him as his first-choice goalkeeper.
Ramsdale’s maturity, developed during lower-league loan spells with Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon earlier in his career, is an asset but there is a mischievous side to him too.
In the 2-0 win over Leicester before the international break, he could be seen joining in with home fans as they tried to put him off at goal kicks. Arsenal fans enjoyed it and so did he.
“I think it makes me play better,” he explained afterwards. “It makes me prove a point, it helps me prove someone wrong.”
He is certainly doing that at Arsenal this season and while Arteta urged him to “keep his feet on the earth” after that game, perhaps with those antics in mind, there is no questioning the impact Ramsdale has already made.
Watch Liverpool vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm