When the team sheets were produced at Goodison Park on an unseasonably warm September afternoon it was clear the goalkeeper conundrum which had been simmering at Arsenal all summer had come to a head.
At the top of the crisp A4 page listing the two teams’ starting lineups was the Gunners’ number 22 new signing David Raya.
Listed amongst the substitutes was the man who started the season as first choice and still wears the traditional goalkeeper’s jersey, 1, Aaron Ramsdale.
As if to emphasize the point, the Englishman did not return to the team midweek for the Champions League clash with PSV.
It had taken just five games for Arsenal’s new signing to displace the man credited with revitalizing the club’s backline.
Unsurprisingly, given the common perception there can only be one choice of goalkeeper at a club, the decision prompted proclamations about Ramsdale’s future.
Former Premier League stalwart Brad Friedel was in no doubt: This was the end for the England keeper at Arsenal.
“I thought from the second they signed [Raya], they signed him to be the new no.1, I don’t think you pay that much money for someone with one year left on their contract,” he told TalkSport.
“It’s very harsh on Ramsdale but it’s the coach’s decision […] I’m assuming Ramsdale at the end of this season will end up having to do what Matt Turner did at the end of the previous season and find another place to play.”
Former Aston Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor was even more emphatic, claiming on the same platform the goalkeeper will be fearing for his place at next summer’s international tournament.
“Ramsdale will be in the horrors now. The Euros are coming he’s thinking to himself I’ve just played for England I’ve got a chance now,” he said, “now he probably won’t even get on the plane.”
There were even claims on the website Football Insider that sources had told them Ramsdale “is not willing to be second-choice” and there were “‘murmurings’ of a potential exit if he is not restored to the side before the January transfer window.”
However, all of this conjecture missed a couple of critical points about Arsenal and manager Mikel Arteta’s approach to the situation.
First is the fact that Ramsdale signed a new long-term contract with the club in May just a couple of months before Raya was signed.
It is extremely unlikely that Arsenal decided in the brief period between last season’s conclusion in this campaign’s start to move for the Brentford keeper out of the blue.
Indeed, Arteta’s words on Ramsdale signing the new deal were that he was “looking forward to enjoying many more years of Aaron at the club” and that “the way Aaron’s developed has been exceptional.”
The move could be interpreted as a decision to increase the depth or bolster in-house competition, which is possible.
But the evidence points to a far more radical theory: that Arteta plans to use both depending on the opposition in the manner outfield players are swapped to counter different threats.
This is a tactic the Arsenal Women’s team deploys and matches what the coach said in a recent interview.
“I’m a really young manager, I have a few regrets and one of them is that I felt, on two occasions, to change the keeper [in the middle of a game] and I didn’t do it,” Arteta explained.
“I didn’t have the courage to do it. Someone is going to do it, and maybe [people will say] ‘That’s so strange, why?’. Why not? You have all the qualities in another goalkeeper, something has happened and you want to change momentum – do it.”
Changing Keepers? Never
The problem the Spaniard has is that his type of thinking goes against a deep-rooted concept in soccer: changing keepers is a sign of weakness.
Like many died-in-the-wool ideas when you start to unpick the evidence around this philosophy it is strikingly thin.
There is no fundamental reason why, especially in an era of five subs, goalkeepers cannot be switched midgame or a squad has two elite stoppers it’s just that nobody does it.
But in the same way, all goalkeepers are now playing with their feet almost as much as an outfield player there is no reason that cannot change.
Arteta will need to be brave but perhaps he can be the coach who brings about this tactical development.
The challenge he has is ensuring Ramsdale can block out the reaction to him being swapped out of the team based on the traditional approach to the position.
According to the Arsenal manager, the early signs are positive.
“He’s been very supportive and good around the place and that’s what I expect from every single player because when you’re on the field there is someone else who’s not so it works both ways. So far he’s been very good,” he told the media.
“It is hard and with other players, it’s the same. Aaron is an exceptional character and has a charisma and aura around him and we all know that.
“We have to deal with that but I need to make a line-up to prepare for the game.”
On who would be playing against Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow, however, Arteta was coy.
“I haven’t decided who will start,” he added.