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With Brentford having kept their first clean sheet in three months last Saturday – and this weekend facing the team rumoured to have been interested in signing David Raya last year – it seems as good a time as any for Tim Street to look at the keeper’s impact on the side.

Raya’s absence over three months of the season was one of many reasons behind Brentford’s dip in form – certainly the costliest of the huge injury list that hit around the end of October and put the skids on the club’s good start – and it was to some relief that he returned, perhaps sooner than expected, for the FA Cup tie at Everton earlier this month.

There were signs of rustiness in that 4-1 defeat, followed by the kind of error in the 2-0 defeat to Man City that Raya used to make in the Championship, but seemed to have cut out of his game. But hopefully the shut-out against Palace will signal a return to the kind of form Raya was showing at the start of the season, and which had Arsenal sniffing around in the first place.

He was certainly one of Brentford’s star performers at the start of the season, with his good feet and quick and accurate distribution crucial to the style of play which had the Bees winning praise from all quarters and taking many an opponent by surprise in the early months of the campaign. Personally, I feared he would be snapped up in January, such was the regard Raya was being held in, and while his injury avoided that scenario, it probably cost Brentford a good many points as both Alvaro Fernadez and Jonas Lossl both failed to take up the baton.

But just what kind of a keeper is Raya and just how crucial is he to Brentford? I recently spoke to former Bees keeper Richard Lee – who played for the club between 2010-2015 and now acts as an agent for fellow former Bees stoppers Dan Bentley, David Button and Jack Bonham – and he gave some interesting insights into the Spaniard.

Lee said: “He’s phenomenal, and I love how he plays. I think the way goalkeeping is going, he epitomises a lot about what the modern goalkeeper is now perceived to be. He plays very much on the front foot with an aggressive starting position. He is very brave with his decision-making, comes a long way for crosses and corners and stops a lot at source. He is good at shot-stopping, is powerful and quick and moves well. His distribution is very good, one of the best in the Premier League.

“There’s now a realisation, with teams playing a style of football like Brentford and a lot of the top teams, about keeping possession, but it’s a lot more than that now. Goalkeeping has gone to the next level now and everything is rehearsed, whether a goal kick or a back pass. With all the different patterns of play and the different exit routes, it’s about having the ability to execute the right pass at the right time, into the full-back or to the chest of a striker or winger. You’re effectively a quarterback, and it’s about knowing when to use each play.

“I think certainly it’s been tough for anyone stepping into David’s shoes, because in terms of being an all-rounder – catching crosses, making saves, distributing well – there’s very few I’ve seen who are so skilled in all areas. A lot of teams will have this issue, that when you have a keeper who’s your outright number one, it’s very hard when they’re out for a long period of time to have someone step in, and you will see the change.

“David is that good, genuinely. It was going so well for Brentford at the start of the season, and he was such an important part of that. I may be biased as goalkeeping is my passion, and I can see why people say strikers are the most important people on the pitch, but I would say that goalkeepers run them close.

“There’s never been a team that’s won the league without having a top-quality goalkeeper. With the way Brentford play, there’s not many keepers in the world who can play the way Brentford need them to, and David is one of them – hence why they’ve done everything to keep him at the club these last few years.”

Interesting stuff. I have always liked Lee, and despite him being the last of what I would call a “traditional” keeper at Brentford, he has always been an outside-the-box thinker and given good insights. I remember him once telling me after a game at MK Dons that Clayton Donaldson had taken on the role as unofficial team joker, telling jokes to relax the team in the pre-match huddles, which he said was having a positive effect on the side.

Lee is also a keen student of psychology – something which has played a huge part in Brentford’s rise over the past decade. So many former players I have spoken to have waxed lyrical about the mental strength the Bees showed to recover from crushing setbacks – like the last-day farce against Doncaster in 2014 and the 2020 play-off final defeat to Fulham, in which Raya was caught off his line and beaten by a 40-yard free kick – and bounce back to win promotion the following season both times.

The keepers which Lee now acts as agents for also arguably show the evolution of Brentford keepers as the club started, fine-tuned and then perfected the style of play to what it has now become, with Raya at the centre of it. Setting aside Jack Bonham, who didn’t really get a look in with the Bees, and like Luke Daniels, was little more than back-up, those who followed Lee adapted to the new style with mixed results.

David Button was the first Brentford keeper I can remember looking to play the ball out to his defenders to start attacks from the back rather than hitting it into the channels or trying to hit the big man up top. Often described as a sweeper-keeper when it was becoming a growing trend, Button’s athleticism and anticipation were crucial to his game, and like Raya, he was a fantastic shot-stopper, with 20 clean sheets during Brentford’s 2013-14 promotion season, including seven out of eight in the unbeaten run which saw manager Uwe Rosler snapped up by Wigan.

Button’s replacement when he joined Fulham in 2016 was Dan Bentley, who a Southend-supporting friend assured me was one of the most promising young keepers in the country. He certainly started out that way, showing huge potential at first, and for me, it was one of the greatest disappointments of recent times at Brentford that Bentley didn’t build on those early years and fulfil the potential he had so clearly showed with the club. Instead, his form dipped in his latter years with the club, seemingly losing his confidence after some high-profile blunders between the sticks. In the end, a move to Bristol City in 2019, when Raya joined the club, was in the interests of both parties.

“I like to think of myself as a bit of a quarterback,” said Bentley when he joined the Bees. “I’ve got a long throw and like to spray it from side to side. That’s the way the club plays, and it’s a style the manager and staff drive into the players. I think it will suit me as I see it as one of my strengths.”

A few months later, Bentley spoke about the emerging role of sweeper-keepers, when England stopper Joe Hart had been axed for not being to Pep Guardiola’s taste at Man City. Bentley said: “It’s all about the situation. I’m not a keeper who borders on the side of recklessness, I try to make educated decisions made on each situation. I try to treat each situation on its own merit, you won’t see me coming out chasing hopelessly for balls that aren’t mine.

“But goalkeeping is not just about keeping the ball out of the back of the net. The saves are my bread and butter, but I’m very much a believer in the all-round keeper who does everything. It’s an all-round game, and I don’t just look at the saves. I look at each individual kick and throw, every cross that comes in and my positing throughout the game.

“I read a lot about Joe Hart, and a lot of it is absolute nonsense, but who can question one of the best managers in the world? If Joe’s face doesn’t fit at Man City, there’s not a lot you can do about that. He’s still a quality keeper, and has been at the top a long time now, but all round goalkepers are the keepers of today. Is your distribution good? Is your kicking good? Can you make saves? Can you take crosses?

“I keep seeing keeper sweeper bandied about, and it’s used a bit tongue in cheek for me. You look at Manuel Neuer, who’s setting the bar for goalkeeping at the moment. He’s where it comes from as he comes out and plays like a sweeper. He’s the best in the world at the moment, but not every keeper will be like Neuer. It’s not about trying to be like the next guy or the guy who’s the best, it’s about making your game your own and doing things that suit you as a goalkeeper, the team and the manager.”

Interesting words from Bentley too, and you can certainly see what both he and Button contributed to Brentford’s progress as a club before Raya’s arrival. Hopefully, Raya’s return to the side will be the catalyst, along with the return of Josh Dasilva and the arrival of Christian Eriksen, for Brentford turning their season back around. Hopefully they will also be able to keep hold of him in the summer, and if not, it will be interesting to see if the club take up their option on Fernandez or cast the net elsewhere.

Tim Street