Keeping Martinez and Bernd Leno in competition might have been Mikel Arteta’s preferred approach but the simple reality is that it was nigh on impossible to satisfy both players. Someone had to be the number one.
That man is Bernd Leno and his place in the Arsenal hierarchy was only reaffirmed with the signing of Alex Runarsson as the current back-up goalkeeper. Even if David Raya were to join from Brentford he would do so well aware he is second fiddle.
There is a strong possibility that it will be Runarsson, a £1million signing from Dijon, who steps into the fray for cup games and the early rounds of the Europa League. That Arsenal have picked the 25-year-old as the man to fulfill that reserve role prompted some surprise among those who saw him in Ligue 1 last season.
To be blunt, those who have doubts over whether Runarsson could step into the fray if called upon are absolutely entitled to their misgivings. In 34 starts for Dijon the Icelander kept just five clean sheets and in the remaining 29 matches he conceded 59 goals.
Through the course of his career Runarsson has consistently conceded more goals than he ought to based on the quality of chances against him. Wyscout has logged 200 of those, the combined expected goals against across 11,433 minutes is 174.86. In the games he has played, the 25-year-old has conceded 14% more than an average player in his position would be expected to.
That is a not insignificant tally of goals given away and it has cost Runarsson opportunities. Part of the reason Arsenal were able to secure their Martinez successor for such a bargain price was that he had lost his place in the Dijon side both midway through last season and at the start of the current campaign to Alfred Gomis.
He may point to the reality that goalkeeper’s playing in teams fighting against relegation – Dijon finished 16th last season and had to beat Lens in a relegation playoff to survive the previous campaign – but equally whilst he has faced a lot of chances Runarsson has struggled to keep them at bay.
According to fbref last season Runarsson faced shots in Ligue 1 with a value of 13.1 xG. From those he conceded 16 times with one one goal adding to his tally. That means that per 90 minutes his post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded was -0.29. In effect he conceded one more goal than he should have just over once every three games.
By way of comparison both Bernd Leno and Martinez significantly outperformed their xGA last season, the former’s per 90 tally at 0.21, the latter’s 0.46 from a far smaller sample size. The Argentine would inevitably have regressed to the mean over time but it would appear that Arsenal have traded in one of the Premier League’s top shot stoppers for someone who is not at his best when it comes to saving attempts on his goal.
And yet Arsenal were aware of all the issues Runarsson had last season as Edu noted in a brief statement that seemed designed to assuage any doubts supporters might have.
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“We’re very pleased to welcome Alex to our squad,” the club’s technical director said. “We have been monitoring him for some time and from the analysis, he has strong attributes that we look for in a goalkeeper and as a person.”
There are specific mitigating factors that make Runarsson’s numbers look perhaps worse than they actually are. Remove games against Paris Saint-Germain from last season’s equation – and the juggernaut from the capital are so far ahead of the rest of Ligue 1 that it seems fair to do so – and the Icelander’s record goes from 26 conceded in 14 to a rather more palatable 16 in 12.
Indeed in those PSG games Runarsson showed impressive reflexes to keep his opponents from running in a cricket score. In a 4-0 defeat in February he made seven saves including an instinctive dive to palm Thilo Kehrer’s bouncing, close range header to safety and smart block one-on-one with Kylian Mbappe.
The latter save is, Runarsson would note, something of a speciality of his.
“I would say I’m a modern goalkeeper,” Runarsson said. “It is one of my best attributes that I’m comfortable with my feet, I can play with my right and left foot, I am not afraid to play as a sweeper and I am good one against one.”
If there is anything that makes Runarsson stand out it is not so much his shot-stopping when facing a lone forward but what he does when his team have the ball. He has shown all the signs of being a high quality goalkeeper with the ball at his feet.
Of short passes he has attempted in his career 97.4% have found their target, the exact same proportion as Martinez. Even during his travails last season Runarsson’s ability with his feet held up, of the 187 short passes he attempted with Dijon 183 found their man.
Runarsson’s passing is notably press resistent as well, a key component that Arteta demands from all positions in his side. An Arsenal player is expected to draw opponents onto him before releasing the ball. The efficacy of this has been proven in the string of goals scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang late last season and early this, many of which began with the goalkeepers.
The image above, from a friendly between Nordsjaelland and CSKA Moscow in 2018 during Cana’s spell as a goalkeeping coach for the former, is one of many moments in Runarsson’s career that typifies his confidence when opponents pressurise him. It is not just that he manages to keep possession but that he has faith in himself to play a more risky pass.
Not only are their three players closing in on the goalkeeper but the intended receiver Mikel Damsgaard also has two opponents in close proximity. Runarsson’s pass is like an arrow, dropping over the midfielder’s shoulder and into a position where Nordsjaelland can push forward and attack down the left.
Runarsson is also not afraid to go further with his passes. Last season with Dijon he attempted around 13 short passes per 90 and 5.4 long. Leno delivered 14 short and 4.3 long. Inevitably those numbers could change when the new signing familiarises himself with his new environment.
However Arteta will already delight in seeing his new signings ability to kick start attacks with swift and decisive deliveries. When Runarsson does make a save it is apparent how quickly he is on his feet, looking for a way to distribute with hands or feet.
Take the passage of play below from a 2-1 defeat to Saint-Etienne. Runarsson gets down smartly to stop a shot from Zaydou Youssouf but is swiftly on his feet after spotting the run of team-mate Jules Keita down the left.
Runarsson’s release is sufficiently well judged that Keita receives the ball in acres of space with runners ahead of him. The move should ultimately lead to Dijon’s equaliser but Julio Tavares would spurn the chance.
For a team like Arsenal, who intend to spend most of their games on the front foot, the value of a goalkeeper with Runarsson’s skillset is clear. If Arteta drills his defence well enough then his goalkeeper’s limitations when shots are sent his way ought to be compensated for by his qualities with the ball at his feet.
That does not mean that signing Runarsson is not a gamble. He may be an adequate backup to Leno and could improve under Cana’s tutelage.
Arsenal’s run-in did, however, prove the benefits of a number two goalkeeper who can be trusted. Keeping Martinez was never an option if Leno was to be first-choice but it is easy to see why Runarsson would slide down the pecking order to Matt Macey’s spot if the Gunners can secure Raya. Brentford, it should be noted, have given no indication that they will sell their goalkeeper.
As such it would appear that Runarsson is quite the gamble being taken by Edu and Arteta, who have backed Pavon’s judgement with their new signing.
Runarsson may be able to do a lot of what Arteta will want when Arsenal have the ball but if the Gunners need the same game-changing contributions that Leno and Martinez brought on a consistent basis last season they will need to coax significant improvements out of their new signings.