Can Arsenal win the Premier League with a ‘dodgy keeper’ and no muscle memory?
Arsenal’s latest last-minute winner at Luton might be the stereotypical hallmark of potential champions but for all their excellent attributes, there is one issue that continues to rear its head and could prove fatal in their pursuit of a first Premier League crown in 20 years: their goalkeeper.
Kenilworth Road was the scene of David Raya’s nadir of an already-testing Gunners career, albeit one that is only three months old. He came and did not collect for Luton’s second and he was far too slow to get down for Ross Barkley’s relatively tame drive for their third.
There would have been no more relieved man in Britain than the Spaniard when Declan Rice bailed him out with his brilliant 97th-minute headed winner but it will not paper over the cracks that have been evident in his game of late – Lens away, Manchester City at home, to name just two other cases.
The decision to replace Aaron Ramsdale with Raya was questioned by many, not because the on-loan Brentford stopper is no better than the England man, but due to the unnecessary distraction and discussion, particularly when Mikel Arteta claimed that the two are in competition for the No.1 jersey.
Raya is the obvious first choice but the chatter has not helped either him or Ramsdale, with broadcasters panning to the deputy on the bench whenever the current incumbent has a shaky moment or a howler.
Both goalkeepers, Arteta and Arsenal as a whole would be better off if Ramsdale was to move on in January, and he might push for that scenario given his Euro 2024 spot is under threat.
Even if this does happen and the debates die down, has the damage already been done, at least for this season? Can you win the Premier League with a so-called ‘dodgy keeper’? History suggests not, with some notable exceptions to the rule.
Given football didn’t start in 1992, a nod first will be given to Alex Stepney, Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton and Neville Southall – the latter is the last keeper to win the FWA Player of the Year.
The dawn of the Premier League saw the true start of Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance. Peter Schmeichel was arguably the keeper of the 1990s, a central figure to all of United’s success throughout the decade and someone near-impossible to replace at Old Trafford.
Such was United’s pre-eminence in these years that titles continued to come after the Great Dane’s exit in 1999, with Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw and most notably, Fabien Barthez, looking to fill his enormous boots and gloves, to very mixed success.
While Barthez was eccentric in the extreme, he was a World Cup-winning keeper and made the PFA Team of the Year in his first season before things went awry in later years.
Schmeichel’s skills and success passed onto his son, Kasper, who was a major part of Leicester’s miracle title win in 2015/16, and a keeper who certainly could have played for a bigger club in the years after.
The only two sides to prevent United from monopolising the title in those early years, Blackburn and Arsenal, also had elite keepers of their own in Tim Flowers and David Seaman.
Both pipped Schmeichel to PFA Team of the Year honours in this time (oddly, the United keeper was only selected once), which showed their individual talent and the key contribution both made to their sides’ success.
Flowers remains the only goalkeeper to win Player of the Month twice, and this came after his 1994/95 title with Kenny Dalglish and Alan Shearer’s Rovers.
Seaman’s role in 1997/1998 was significant, especially when compared to his injury-ravaged contribution to the Gunners’ next success four years later. A series of injuries led to then-young duo and future Manchester City third-choice stoppers Richard Wright and Stuart Taylor both also receiving league-winning medals, which is impressive given the threshold was 10 appearances. Dodgy enough but the team was just too good.
Seaman’s departure in 2003 saw Jens Lehmann step into the breach and become an important part of the Invincibles’ side, as much for his combative and eccentric nature as his usually stellar goalkeeping. Like Barthez, he was mad as a bag of spiders, but he could mostly be trusted.
Jose Mourinho’s arrival that next summer and subsequent title dominance for the next two seasons was built around a rock-solid defence and the bear-like presence of Petr Cech in goal, a combination which saw the Blues concede an all-time low of 15 goals in 2004/05.
His head injury in 2006/07 was a big blow to the hopes of three in a row, particularly as a resurgent United had the ultra-calm and composed Edwin van der Sar in goal, Fergie finally finding his Schmeichel replacement years later.
United and Chelsea’s seven-year stranglehold over the title was ended in 2012 by Manchester City, in what would mark the start of the Abu Dhabi-led and 115 alleged breaches rule of the English top flight.
That big asterisk aside, the blue side of Manchester had their own exemplary keeper for their first two title successes in the pre-Pep years. While their current manager may have jettisoned Joe Hart instantly due to an inability to play from the back, the 75-capped England man more than held his own in what now seems like a bygone era.
In between those titles saw United’s last to date, and Fergie’s last dance, with David de Gea beating off the ‘competition’ of Anders Lindegaard to cement his role as Van der Sar’s successor. While the Spaniard was young, he was clearly extremely talented, and again, United’s muscle memory was such that winning titles was almost second nature.
2015 and 2017 saw Chelsea win their last two titles, both of which, like City’s, have serious question marks hanging around them. That aside (what a bleak state English football is in), a top keeper was paramount to that success, Thibaut Courtois usurping Cech in Mourinho’s second stint and remaining in goal under Antonio Conte.
Since that last Blues’ title, the Premier League has been Pep’s world, with Jurgen Klopp upsetting the newly established order once in the last six seasons. Both men have had a brilliant Brazilian keeper for all of their successes at the Etihad and Anfield.
Alisson and Ederson remain key components of the sides that will duke it out in the title race again and there is little doubt that both will step up in the pressure moments in the run-in, when Ramsdale faltered last season as Arsenal capitulated in the spring months.
The question is whether Raya can truly be an upgrade or is he destined to join Manuel Almunia and Simon Mignolet in the ‘dodgy keeper’ department? With near-perfection being the requisite for toppling Pep and City, the former is needed for a 14th league title to finally come to north London.
A testing trip to Aston Villa against former manager Unai Emery and former keeper Emi Martinez seems the perfect place to make a start. Over to you, David.