December 7, 2021

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The rise of Aaron Ramsdale: from Premier League’s most-mocked transfer to leader of Arsenal’s revival

The rise of Aaron Ramsdale: from Premier League’s most-mocked transfer to leader of Arsenal’s revival
A grand total of 152 players were signed by Premier League clubs during the last summer transfer window.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United generated the biggest buzz, followed by Romelu Lukaku’s own homecoming at Chelsea, while Jack Grealish’s record-breaking £100m switch to Manchester City was the costliest. Aaron Ramsdale’s move from Sheffield United to Arsenal for an initial £24m fee rising to £30m, meanwhile, attracted the most scrutiny.

Supporters of rival clubs mocked Arsenal for splurging such a hefty fee on a goalkeeper who had suffered three relegations in four seasons as a first-team footballer, with Chesterfield from League Two and Bournemouth and Sheffield United from the Premier League in back-to-back campaigns. Even to less partisan football analysts, the club’s decision to siphon a sizeable chunk of its budget on a player initially expected to provide backup to established No 1 Bernd Leno appeared odd.

It seems unlikely that Mikel Arteta would have had to resort to FBI-level persuasion tactics to get Ramsdale to sign considering no other club appeared to be interested. However, in just a few short months, Arsenal’s much-maligned scouting network has received begrudging praise for looking beyond the individual errors that contributed towards collective underachievement at Ramsdale’s previous clubs and instead spotting the potential in the 23-year-old that is starting to be fulfilled.

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Ramsdale’s impact since ousting Leno from Arteta’s starting line-up in their fourth league game of the season has been unmistakable. Arsenal were bottom of the Premier League and had conceded the second-most goals in the division after their opening three games; since Ramsdale’s debut against Norwich they have climbed to fifth in the table, taken more points (20) than any other club, kept the joint-most clean sheets (with five) and boast an overall defensive record that is only bettered by league leaders Chelsea. They are also unbeaten in 10 games across all competitions.

Ramsdale isn’t the only newcomer to have made a strong early impression for the Gunners. Ben White, also the subject of microscopic analysis after completing his big-money move from Brighton, Takehiro Tomiyasu and in recent weeks, Nelson Tavares, have all slotted in seamlessly into the back four. With Gabriel Magalhaes established as White’s central defensive partner, Arsenal’s back five in the last three league matches has all been signed under Arteta’s watch. Kieran Tierney, who has recently returned from injury, is the only regular with roots to the Unai Emery era.

There have been two saves, in particular, that have defined Ramsdale’s exceptional start at Arsenal, both of which were visually enhanced by the contribution of the crossbar. The first was a finger-tipped intervention to deny Lucas Moura in the north London derby; the second a strong palm to prevent a James Maddison free-kick from nestling into the top corner. Miraculous saves are forgettable if games are lost but memorable if they are won and Arsenal went on to win both.

Beyond the saves, Ramsdale looks like a player enjoying his football. At times, during Sheffield United’s inevitable trudge towards the Championship, Ramsdale’s demeanour was like that of a child forced to follow their parents around a shopping centre; head bowed, shoulders slumped, scowl fixed. Now, every important goal-stopping intervention is met with an animated roar and a fist-bump with the closest teammate. Against Leicester, a grinning Ramsdale lapped up traditional terrace taunts from the home fans who intended to put him off, resulting in a viral clip doing the rounds on social media.

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He has struck up a great rapport with his own supporters too. “When I came in I was told to be myself and my character is to be loud, be a leader and show passion,” he said of his impassioned goal celebrations with the fans. “I celebrate with them and sometimes my celebrations look like I’ve scored a goal myself. That’s just the pure emotion and hard work throughout the week to get the three points and get the win, so it all comes out and I enjoy it.

“When I’m at a football club I then become a supporter because if the team aren’t doing well then I’m not doing my job well and the fans aren’t happy. To make them happy I need to play well. Then we are all happy as a collective. It’s not just the players, it’s one football club.”

In the space of only eight Premier League games, Ramsdale’s reputation has skyrocketed. That much is clear in his ascension up the pecking order in Gareth Southgate’s England hierarchy. Ramsdale was left out of the original 26-man squad for Euro 2020 and overlooked when Nick Pope pulled out through injury with Sam Johnstone called up instead, before finally joining the group after Dean Henderson had also withdrawn injured.

From being fifth-choice in June, Ramsdale suddenly has a credible shot for the No 1 jersey with Burnley’s Pope yet to force his way back in, Henderson sidelined by David De Gea’s return to form at Manchester United and Johnstone playing his club football with West Brom in the Championship. On Monday, Ramsdale stood in for Jordan Pickford, making his senior England debut as they walloped San Marino 10-0.

Inevitably, the scoreline raised debates over whether Uefa’s qualification system for the World Cup requires a rethink. Ramsdale was surprisingly forced to make a routine save during the game, but it was not the sort of occasion that allowed him to showcase his shot-stopping and ball-playing qualities. Not that he seemed too bothered.

England posted a video of their 1,265th capped player afterwards in which Ramsdale gazed longingly at his newly acquired red tasselled headwear. “It’s special, you know,” he said with a puff of the cheeks. “I’ve been dreaming of this day for a long time. My family was here as well, I think I saw tears when the national anthem was on.” It was all very wholesome, particularly given the difficulties Ramsdale has encountered along the way.

In October, Ramsdale revealed that being released by Bolton as a youngster gave him the drive to make the grade elsewhere. “Being at Bolton for five years and then getting rejected for being too small and not being able to kick just spurred me on,” he said. “I wanted to never get that feeling again and the only way to not get that feeling again was believing in myself, getting a new team and having that backbone and never say never attitude. That’s where [my confidence] comes from.”

“Aaron was the talk of the club last night and everyone is delighted for him,” Sheffield United’s goalkeeper coach Matt Duke told i this week of Ramsdale’s England debut. “He’s a fantastic character, well-grounded and it was a pleasure to work with him, even if it was for a short time. What stood out for me, personally, was his work ethic every day. He is dedicated to his profession, his rise is deserved and here at Sheffield United we will continue to monitor his progress with a sense of pride that he has been associated with the club.”

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Playing in front of an expectant crowd under the lights at Anfield on Saturday will be the acid test for Ramsdale’s start at Arsenal. Although Liverpool have wobbled since sticking five past Manchester United at Old Trafford, their attacking numbers speak for themselves. Jurgen Klopp’s side have scored four more goals (31 in total) than any other team in the Premier League this season and in Mo Salah they have both the competition’s top scorer (10) and assist provider (seven).

Arsenal have routinely struggled at Anfield in recent years. Liverpool have won their last five home league matches against Arsenal, scoring at least three goals each time and racking up an aggregate score of 18-4. And having let five precious points slip by in their last two games, Liverpool need to get back to winning ways quickly if they are to get their title challenge back on track.

A draw or even a win would be a marker of Arsenal’s improvement since that harrowing start in August. If a positive result is secured, one suspects that Ramsdale will have something to do with it. Yet to concede a goal in any of his league matches away from the Emirates, Ramsdale’s burgeoning reputation will only be enhanced if he succeeds in keeping Salah and co quiet this weekend.


Rival fans reacted with glee when Arsenal spent £30m on a goalkeeper relegated in consecutive seasons but the 23-year-old has repaid Mikel Arteta’s faith in 10 unbeaten games