David Raya's Spain call-up is deserved and surprising, but Luis Enrique has a method

"Who is David Raya?"

It's the kind of headline you might expect here, but not there. It's one thing to need to tell an international audience, another to need to tell a national one. And yet there it was, over and over again. Who is David Raya? Discovering David Raya. Everything you ever wanted to know about David Raya. But you were afraid to ask; well, not afraid exactly, it's more that you didn't even think to. And why would you?

As Spain's players arrived at their Las Rozas HQ in preparation for friendlies against Albania and Iceland this week, there was an unfamiliar face among them. He is from Barcelona, he's 26 years old and he's 6 feet tall. He is a goalkeeper and his name -- and you can see where this is going -- is David Raya. And, as you have just read that line, you now know as much about him as most people in Spain do.

Here he was, a Spain international, and yet no one had any idea who he was. They had never heard of him before, let alone seen him.

You might think all this is an exaggeration and you might even be half-right, but it's really not. Not much of one. And we've got the Google search to prove it.

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"Who is David Raya?" really was the headline in AS.

And in ABC.

And in Goal. Gol, too.

In Cadena Ser, El Periódico and Telemadrid. In Cuatro, Sport and La Razón. In Libertad Digital, Las Provincias and 20 minutos.

Oh, and in El Español.

The good news is he doesn't mind: "It's understandable," David Raya said. He has, after all, only played 15 top division games. And that was in England, not here. "It's normal that lots of people know nothing about me." The last game he played in Spain was for Unió Esportiva Cornella; the next he plays in Spain may well be in Cornella too, where the selección face Albania on Saturday night. More than a decade has passed in-between.

Raya left for Blackburn at the age of 16 in 2012, joining Rovers' academy. It wasn't until 2015 that he made his debut. He briefly played for Conference side Southport, where he says he saw players struggling to make ends meet. He played in League One and the Conference. Last summer, he was in the Brentford team that won promotion. When the call came, he was still training, and had no idea: "I wasn't even on the pre-list or anything," he told Marca. By the time he called his girlfriend and his parents, they already knew: They'd read those headlines too. So that's who he is.

The next question was: What's he doing here? And why is David De Gea not?

For the first time in eight years, the Manchester United goalkeeper has not been included in the Spain squad -- now of all times, when his form is as good as it has been for a long time. He is the current Premier League Player of the Month, having won February's edition -- the first goalkeeper to get the award in five years. Luis Enrique had stood by him when he was attacked, often viciously, after the Russia World Cup, but lets go as he prepares for Qatar.

Now, there's a bit of déjà vu here. Spain has been through this before when Luis Enrique shocked everyone by calling up Robert Sanchez in March 2021. Here was another goalkeeper whose professional career had been played entirely in England, where he had gone at 15. He had played for Rochdale and Forest Green and was playing at Brighton: a Premier League club, but not a Champions League one. The parallels are there, the headlines too. Let's not scroll through them all again, but here's Marca: "Who is Robert Sanchez?" Cadena Ser, Sport and 20 Minutos are there too, and that's just on the first page.

Their call-ups underline that Luis Enrique has never been one to be carried along by fashion or media campaigns -- more than a little contrary, if anything, he is minded to do the opposite of what they say -- and reflect the modus operandi of his team, the independence of his thinking and the clarity of the idea that guides him, the criterion he applies.

They have a list of every "selectable" player in Europe's top divisions and the analysis is exhaustive: in person, by video, and through statistics. The variables are specific, very much theirs. This isn't just: Who's good? And it definitely isn't: Who do people think is good?

The debates that this decision provoked fall on deaf ears. And incidentally, if the issue of the back-up goalkeepers is the main topic of conversation, that's a pretty good sign that things are going really rather well.

Luis Enrique doesn't necessarily need to see players in European football, though he does want to see them with the selección. He is a manager who has admitted to changing his mind on players when he saw them in training -- Iago Aspas and Raul de Tomás come to mind -- a recognition that's made him even more open to bringing players into that environment to have a closer look, even if it's just once. For him, it is about integration, adaptation and character too -- elements he cannot measure from a distance. He wants to know they can do exactly what he asks of them.

"I really want to see him in the selección context," Luis Enrique said when he named Raya in this squad.

This is a chance to do so, a factor that should not be forgotten; this needn't be a permanent decision, but rather something a little more experimental. Spain are already qualified for the World Cup and these are friendlies. There are not many opportunities to look at alternatives before Qatar.

There has been a willingness to change goalkeepers and see others that has spoken, perhaps, of an uncertainty too. None of the three keepers that Luis Enrique named in his first squad -- De Gea, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pau Lopez -- are still there. Since Russia, no European country has given games to more keepers, and that list of four is likely to be expanded this week. In the build-up to the Euros, the debate centered on whom the keeper would be. No one seemed to be sure, except Luis Enrique. Unai Simón played every game and is now Spain's No. 1. He had got his first call-up less than a year earlier.

Unai Simón had a difficult season, but there was something about him that Luis Enrique liked, and it felt like it was as much about personality as play, about type as much as talent. This week, the Spanish football statistician Alexis Tamayo offered up seven metrics by which to measure goalkeepers. In all seven, David Raya was ahead of David De Gea. Bringing them together to create a "score," the ranking read: Raya 85%, Sánchez 79%, Simón 55%, De Gea 54%. No, it's not just a number -- still less than an exact science, but there is something in that.

Which metrics those were are significant, too. It's not just the saves (totals, per shot and per goal), but also catches, punches clear and challenges won. Some keepers prevent themselves from having to make the save by ending the move sooner; that simple idea of dominating the area matters. In Luis Enrique's vision, a goalkeeper can't just stay on his line, however brilliant they might be there. And then there was one other metric, which at the risk of becoming reductionist was probably the most important of all, way ahead of actual goalkeeping: passes.


Luis Enrique is a coach for whom a goalkeeper has to be a player too, someone who must make saves, but must start moves too. It's no longer such a revolutionary idea, of course, and he is hardly unique, but for him it is absolutely non-negotiable.

That was seen in the decision to turn to Unai Simón. And, yes, you would be right to jump up here and say: "Hang on a minute, Unai Simon isn't that good with his feet." You might insist that at Athletic Club, his team, he's not a goalkeeper called upon to pass the ball all that much. And to recall that goal against Croatia when he let the ball slip under his foot, conceding a comic own goal (credited to Pedri) from 44 metres.

But that may help to explain this glance at other keepers now, and it certainly does explain the process pre-Euros and since. He's played twenty consecutive games now. If Simón was not naturally a ball player, he took on Luis Enrique's ideas and is better now. "He has taught me to understand the game," he said. And when he made that mistake, it didn't sink him. Unai Simón ended that day being decisive, as he was again in the quarterfinal shootout against Switzerland.

Not that it was the penalties that mattered, exactly; it was the passing. It was what happened immediately after. The very next time Unai Simón got the ball, he was playing it again, not just hoofing it. Drawing in opponents, taking the risk, waiting for his moment to play the right ball. There was a collective coronary, sure, but it was correct. And it was what his coach demanded, later eulogising the keeper's character.

That character was something that he couldn't truly gauge until he tried Unai Simón, until he had him with the squad and exposed him to the pressures of his plans. Mistakes would follow, he knew, but that could not see him leave the path, nor compromise on the identity. Goalkeepers have to recover and keep doing the right thing, and that was the quality Unai Simón had shown. It was their job to save, sure, but also Luis Enrique said to start thing. "I demand of my goalkeepers that they create overloads, numerical superiority," he said. "We depend on them for that."

"The goalkeeper is not there just to save it, at least with Luis Enrique," Unai Simón told El País in a fascinating interview. "You have to find the free man, which is often me, and if the opponents come to press me that means there's someone else unmarked. It can look risky, but it's studied and worked upon. Are you scared to have the ball? You shouldn't be because that's how we play. If it goes wrong sometimes, no problem because you have to take risks. Luis Enrique has made me and the team see that."

And that is what he wants to see in his keepers, whether they play in Barcelona or Bilbao, Brighton or Brentford.

"David Raya is in the list of goalkeepers we're following; he has been playing well for a while and he has the profile a goalkeeper needs in the selección both for his ability in the goal and his ability to play with his feet," Luis Enrique explained.

In the Championship, Raya completed over 300 passes more than any other keeper. This season, he averages more than anyone in the Premier League. When they played Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp was said he had played "several incredible balls, exactly what you should do against us." As a kid, he played fútbol sala out on the pitch. "I've always felt comfortable with the ball at my feet, and we work on that every week," he told Marca this week. "The manager wants us to be another attacker, an extra element in bringing he ball out, creating chances and passes, short and long."

He was talking about his club, but he could have been talking about his country -- he's been away for a decade, but he's back now, in Spain's colours. And while it came as a surprise, even to him, there is good reason for it: a method, an idea, an identity. One that he fits like a glove. Or should that say boot? Because when it comes to the question of who is David Raya, the best answer might well have come from Liverpool's manager: "He's a goalkeeper who could wear the No. 10."