LONDON -- If any single signing could be emblematic of Arsenal's rise over the last two years, Aaron Ramsdale might just be it. The twice-relegated goalkeeper signed to a chorus of skepticism went on to emphatically vindicate Mikel Arteta's eye for talent and character. He didn't just invigorate the on-field product with his eye for a pass, he brought joy to a fractious faithful with his swagger on the pitch.
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Ramsdale took Arsenal further than they have been in some time and yet on his club's return to the Champions League, the England international was a spectator. David Raya had taken his starting spot in the 4-0 win over PSV Eindhoven as he had in the hard-fought victory at Everton after the international break. There was some symmetry in that, Ramsdale's big break having come two years previously when Bernd Leno was dropped for a 1-0 win over Norwich. The German would never get his place back for the games that mattered; it is easy then to see why supporters might fear the end for one of the Emirates' cult heroes.
Arteta would counsel them that goalkeeper need not be any different to any outfield position, that it is perfectly possible for two to be satisfied fighting for one starting spot. For his part, Raya seems similarly at ease, as ready for the challenge that comes with Ramsdale breathing down his neck as he was to secure a place between the sticks himself after arriving from Brentford on loan with a view to a permanent transfer.
"I've just been selected the last two games," said Raya, "That is just the choice of the gaffer – that is his choice, not my choice and when Aaron comes in he will need to also fight for the team and to win games.
"I think it is the first time that two top goalkeepers are in the same team so that is just part of football now and the gaffer wants two top players for each position and that is what we have to work with. I have played the last two games and now we see what happens on Sunday."
That game might yet change the tenor of the conversation about Arsenal's No. 1. If Ramsdale returns to the XI for one of the biggest games of the season then Arteta's insistence he has no first choice rings altogether truer. Even by his standards, the Spaniard has been taciturn when discussing this high-profile battle for a starting spot, insisting on Wednesday night that picking one over the other was no different to going with Kai Havertz over Fabio Vieira or Leandro Trossard ahead of Reiss Nelson. It was "a belief that I had in the team I wanted to play against the expected opponent. Not only that, I made the other changes for the same reason."
Ultimately though, if Raya stays in place for Sunday's derby with Tottenham, then a new hierarchy may well have emerged. Ever since news of the Spaniard's impending arrival broke, there has been the sense that Arsenal have gone for him not to inculcate competition in a spot where so many clubs like certainty but because they saw a potential upgrade available to him. After all, since Arteta brought Brentford's Inaki Cana onto his staff in the days after his appointment in December 2020, Raya has been one of the Gunners' top goalkeeping targets.
As Raya himself noted, it has been a smooth transition moving from west to north London. "
Settling in was very easy," he said. "I felt from the first day that I had been here a long time -- the staff and the players, everybody just made it so easy for me to settle in. [Backing yourself to win a starting spot] is something every player has to do – to back yourself to get in the team and that is why I moved to Arsenal and try to do my best for the team when I'm selected.
"Of course, you never know when you're going to play ... Making your debut for a club like Arsenal and obviously having Aaron as a teammate makes it a bit harder for you but it came quick. You never know when it is going to be and you have to be ready."
So far, Raya has proven himself to be as ready as he could be. Neither Everton nor PSV particularly tested his shot-stopping skills, though on his first Champions League game, the 28-year-old proved himself to be sprightly at getting down to low crosses into the penalty area. Alongside that were the sort of elegant passes high upfield that were Raya's calling card for Brentford. Even without the totemic figure of Ivan Toney to aim at, he showed an ability to get his side into the danger area; only Martin Odegaard passed the ball into the attacking third more than the goalkeeper's six.
Raya will feel he has done little if anything over his first two games of the season to see him drop out of the XI that faces Tottenham on Sunday. Then again, Ramsdale could well have said the same before he departed for England duty earlier this month. For now, it is not entirely clear if one has definitively pushed clear of the other in the battle to be Arsenal No. 1. Come Sunday, though, we may just get our answer.