Advertisement

The making of Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya – and his giant hands

Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya at their training ground at London Colney

When David Raya first arrived at Blackburn Rovers, as a 15-year-old who did not speak a word of English, a coach took one look at him and decided he was never going to make the grade. This Spanish youngster, he said, was simply too short.

“The coach said he was never going to be six foot,” Andres Manzano, the general director of Cornella, Raya’s first club, remembers. “But I told him, ‘Why are you taking his size from his head? Take his size from his hands’.”

At which point, the story goes, the young David revealed his outstretched palms. Suddenly, the mood changed. “David showed them his hands and they said, ‘OK, we will give him a trial’,” Manzano says. “I can tell you, he has hands almost double the size of mine. He already had them at 15. They are not normal hands, and it was my way of convincing the coaches to take him seriously.”

Blackburn could see Raya’s abnormal hands and, within one day of training, they could also see his abnormal talent. Such was the teenager’s athleticism and technique, he instantly convinced Steven Drench, the academy goalkeeping coach, of his quality. “He did one session and I said, ‘We need to sign this lad now’,” Drench says. “He was that good.”

Even at that young age, a long way from his home in Catalonia, Raya showed signs that he was capable of reaching the highest levels of the game. He may not have had the usual height of goalkeeping prodigies but he had everything else: the explosiveness, the agility, the distribution, the discipline. And, of course, those giant hands. “Like shovels,” Drench says.

Now, at the age of 28, Raya is fulfilling his enormous potential. He is a Spanish international and, as of this season, the first-choice goalkeeper for title-chasing Arsenal. The external debate around him and Aaron Ramsdale has fizzled out, with Raya now firmly established as Mikel Arteta’s preferred option thanks to his calm performances and superb distribution.

David Raya warming up before Arsenal's Premier League win at Burnley
Raya wears the largest size available of his chosen goalkeeper glove - Shutterstock/Adam Vaughan

Raya’s hands are evidently not the only reason for his success, but they are a big part of it. “They are huge,” says Drench, who is now a player-coach at Chorley. “When he was 16 I would serve the ball at him like I would do for the 18-year-olds, and he was just catching everything. His hands were that good, and that big.”

Raya is understood to wear size 11 goalkeeper gloves, produced by The One Glove. This is the largest size available on the company’s website. Gloves of that size are designed for palms that measure more than four inches (10.2cm) across, and are usually recommended for people who have a distance of at least nine inches (22.9cm) between the base of their palm and the tip of their middle finger.

Raya’s hands are especially unusual because he is not a particularly big man, in terms of height and width. The Spaniard did defy those early expectations at Blackburn by reaching six feet tall, but only just. Among top-flight goalkeepers, he is one of the shortest. His hands, therefore, are disproportionately large.

They are only useful, though, when married with his other physical attributes. Especially his explosiveness around the six-yard box. Raya is quick and springy, with a physique honed by years of work on the training ground, in the gym and on the beaches of Catalonia.

“He joined us when he was nine, a boy that had a real desire to improve, every day,” Manzano says. “He was always asking for more training. When he finished his sessions he would ask the coach if he could then train with the older groups. In the summer he would call the goalkeeper coach, during holidays, and ask to train at the beach. He had that determination.”

Raya moved from Cornella to Blackburn as part of an agreement between the two clubs. Manzano says he was one of six players who were taken from Cornella to trial in England that year, but the only one who was offered a contract. Raya moved permanently in January 2012, aged 16, and went on to make more than 100 appearances for the first team. From there he joined Brentford, in 2019, before making the move to Arsenal — in a deal that will eventually cost £30 million — last summer.

David Raya during his time at Brentford, before facing Leicester City in 2022
Raya's performances for Brentford earned him a move to Arsenal where has has usurped Aaron Ramsdale - Reuters/Andrew Boyers

“He was lightning quick,” Drench remembers of Raya’s time in the Blackburn academy. “He had a Spanish technique in the way he would move across the goal and fly after things. When English goalkeepers make a save they usually use their hands to get back up off the floor. David would make a save and spin around on his bum. Seeing it for the first time, the other lads had a chuckle. But he was that quick, and it worked, so why would we change it?

“He played futsal as a kid and, as soon as he came in, you could see he was good with the ball. His feet were just as good as any outfield players that I had seen at that stage.”

David Raya kicks the ball from hand during Arsenal's win over Liverpool
Raya's distribution has caught the eye during Arsenal's run of wins since the turn of the year - Getty Images/David Price

Raya’s distribution has been perhaps the most thrilling aspect of his recent impressive performances for Arsenal. From his hands or on the volley, he has demonstrated an ability to consistently start counter-attacks from his penalty box.

A recurring theme of Arsenal’s recent matches is that the wingers, and Gabriel Martinelli in particular, immediately sprint downfield when Raya takes the ball in his hands. The likes of Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Jesus all know that their goalkeeper will be able to find them on the run.

It was this ability with the ball that helped to convince Arsenal to move for Raya this summer. In him they have found a goalkeeper who can start attacks, and also contribute enormously to their build-up play. When Arsenal pass the ball around their own half, Raya often stands in a centre-back position, to the left or right of his goal. With him, Arsenal play a truly 11-man game.

Raya had this quality on the ball when he arrived from Spain, but it was developed further under the guidance of Drench at Blackburn.

“We would play football golf,” Drench says. “We used the sandpit, the lake and the trees around the training ground. We would put mannequins out and say it was a par-four, so you had four shots to hit the mannequin.

“It was to get him used to different techniques: striking it, clipping it, driving it, throwing it, all in a fun environment. The outfield players used to hate it because they wanted to join in. There was head tennis, too. I was known for my distribution and I wanted to help him with his. It is one thing we really focused on.”

There have been occasional setbacks — Raya suffered a sickening nose break with Blackburn at the age of 23 — but his progress has been steady and consistent over the years, starting with a loan move to Southport in 2014. From there it was Blackburn, Brentford, Arsenal; Championship, Premier League, Champions League. Always improving, always working and always using those hands to reach for the next step.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.