Second-choice goalkeepers haven’t really been a problem for Arsenal during Mikel Arteta’s near three years in charge, but Matt Turner filling that role has come with added scrutiny.
Bernd Leno was the undisputed No 1 when Arteta arrived in December 2019, but Emiliano Martinez took his chance to replace him after the German’s season-ending injury early in that season’s post-lockdown run of summer fixtures. Arsenal’s goalkeeping hierarchy went from a clear No 1 and No 2 to having two players with good arguments for being first choice. It was Martinez who moved on in the next transfer window.
Aaron Ramsdale’s quick emergence after he was signed for last season shunted Leno to the side again, but that was no slight on the German. That much was clear in his last Arsenal appearance, when he was mobbed by his team-mates (Ramsdale included) at full-time against Martinez and Aston Villa back in March for keeping a clean sheet.
Turner was then signed from MLS side New England Revolution early in pre-season and all eyes were on him from the get-go, particularly as Leno then left to join promoted Fulham. The expectation has always been that the American is more of a shot-stopper than a ball-playing goalkeeper like Ramsdale, but it seems to be a work in progress.
The 28-year-old has now played three competitive matches for Arsenal and after a tentative beginning, his confidence on the ball has grown — albeit without total consistency.
On his debut in the Europa League group opener away to FC Zurich, for instance, his hesitation when the ball was bouncing towards him or when the hosts pressured him allowed them to get a foothold in the game. That has happened less in the last two weeks in the back-to-back Europa fixtures against Bodo/Glimt as he is finding passes that he is more comfortable making, like clipped balls out to the full-backs.
There are still moments where his distribution is not so smooth, with passes to players who are being pressed a clear indicator. And while Turner did a solid-enough job on the ball in last night’s 1-0 win over the Norwegians, playing on an artificial pitch inside the Arctic Circle, his slightly rushed manner is an area for development.
“He is improving, he’s getting better. Obviously, we’re asking him different things from what other managers have asked him to do (on the ball),” Arteta says.
“He was much better in the first half than in the second half — we could have had some more control. But I think he was phenomenal in the goal in situations, especially when defending the area in behind the centre-halves and in the one-against-one situations.”
Playing high has been one of Arsenal’s themes this season and Turner’s positioning last night epitomised that. William Saliba being in front of him would have helped, but the positioning of the USMNT goalkeeper was still high when hosts Glimt had the ball.
That anticipation benefited Arsenal when passes were clipped behind the defence, as Turner often reacted quickly enough to meet the ball with a clearance, in a similar vein to Ramsdale. Even in these instances, there was a lot happening in regard to Turner setting himself, but he came through unscathed.
Turner has also managed to showcase his shot-stopping in his first three games for the club.
He made a good reaction save to deny Amahl Pellegrino during Glimt’s strong spell at the Emirates last week just before Arteta summoned the cavalry of Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka to steady the ship. Away from home, he did well to save from the same player in a one-on-one and made a brave punch in a packed box in added time as Glimt chased a point.
He does not appear to be the perfect fit, style-wise, but, like other players in the squad, the layers being added to his game are visible. He appears to be growing in confidence and now has two clean sheets from his three appearances. The only goal he has conceded was a penalty against Zurich.
Whether that confidence will translate to the Premier League if called upon is the big question.
In the past, Martinez, Leno and, to an extent, Mat Ryan, have shown the value of Arteta having a trusted second-choice goalkeeper capable of stepping up and performing well in important fixtures.
Ramsdale has needed on-pitch treatment multiple times already this season and with that comes a sense of nervousness in the stands at the Emirates. It happened in the 3-2 win over Liverpool last weekend and also late on against Villa in August, which made him a doubt for the following match away to Manchester United.
Turner is unlikely to match Ramsdale’s attributes, especially on the ball, but establishing himself as a competent backup to the England international would ease concerns during those worryingly frequent moments when Ramsdale requires medical attention.
These Europa League games can be viewed through many different lenses. They may be a tool for players who used to be nailed-on starters to stake their claims to get back into the side, while for those just beneath that level, it is about building consistency and rhythm.
Turner falls into the latter category and though there is more work to do in certain parts of his game, he is applying himself in a manner that should reassure Arsenal and their fanbase.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
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