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  • In the summer of 2018, Chelsea paid £71.6m  for Athletic Club’s Kepa Arrizabalaga  

  • and made the 23-year-old Spaniard the  most expensive goalkeeper of all time.

  • But four seasons later Kepa is  only Chelsea’s second choice.  

  • He has started just eight Premier  League games in two years and,  

  • with a high wage and a damaged reptutation, he  has become one of the game’s white elephants.

  • So, what happened?

  • That transfer fee is an  important factor in this story,  

  • so it’s important to understand  why Chelsea ended up paying it.

  • In 2018, their relationship with long-term  goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had begun to fracture.  

  • The Belgian had long desired a move  to Madrid, where his children from a  

  • prior relationship lived, and where  he had first made his name on-loan.  

  • Following the 2018 World Cup, he was entering  the final year of contractand, unfortunately,  

  • he began it by reporting back  late for pre-season training  

  • and with his agent briefing that he was  desperate to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid.

  • He would get his move and it would leave Chelsea  

  • urgently needing a new goalkeeper  – an in a market with few options.

  • They’d land on Kepa and just three  days ahead of the new season,  

  • agreed to activate the release  clause in his contract.

  • The fee was startling. Kepa also had only two  full top-flight seasons to his name by 2018  

  • and had only recently made his  senior international debut.

  • It would be the first of many problems:  

  • Kepa likely wasn’t quite ready to cope with  being associated with such a large fee,  

  • less to shoulder that burden at a very visible  club where, since 2004, incredibly reliable  

  • goalkeepingthrough Courtois, but also  Petr Cech before himhad been the standard.

  • But he still suited the  project at Stamford Bridge.  

  • Maurizio Sarri had just been appointed as  their head-coach and his new goalkeeper was  

  • known for his eye-catching reflexes butmore importantly, his abilities with his  

  • feet and his excellent distribution. So, he was  expensive, but theoretically perfect for Sarri.

  • In practice, not so muchalthough the issues  only began quietly at first. Kepa’s first season  

  • at Chelsea ended with a third-place Premier  League finish and a Europa League winner’s medal.  

  • Aside from two humiliating defeats at  Manchester City and Bournemouth and a strange,  

  • public disagreement with Sarri at the end of the  Carabao Cup final, Kepa’s year was unremarkable.

  • An unwelcome trend had begun though. Kepa had  a save percentage of 67.5% in the league that  

  • season, good enough only for the 39th percentile.  A greater concern showed in the finer detail.  

  • Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed  is a metric which measures how likely,  

  • on average, a goalkeeper is to save a shot on  goal and, in that first season, Kepa’s PSxG-GA  

  • was already negative. Arsenal’s Petr Cech  managed a +0.32, the highest in the country,  

  • and Kepa fell below average, at -0.05.

  • Some of the goals he conceded also had  a familiar and troubling aesthetic:  

  • headers scored by Dele Alli at Wembley and Paul  Pogba at Stamford Bridge, also a low drive from  

  • Henrikh Mkhitaryan and a similar effort by Ilkay  Gundogan. Shots seemed to go through Kepa too  

  • often; like there was something wrong with his  weight distribution ormore likely his timing.

  • In an article written for  The Athletic in August 2020,  

  • Dom Fifield and Liam Twomey made reference to  a technical issue with Kepa’s shot-stopping,  

  • observing his habit of swinging his arms back  behind his body before springing to make a save.  

  • It may help to generate momentum, they reasonedbut at the cost of crucial split-seconds.

  • Former goalkeeper Richard Lee was also  quoted in the article, saying that:

  • There’s an argument that you can haveslightly bigger arm swing when the shot is  

  • from further out, but the closer it is, there’s  always going to be a slight lack of coordination.  

  • There have been a couple of timeswith headers or shots close in,  

  • that he’s still doing quite a big arm swing, and  then to execute the save is quite difficult.”

  • If 2018-19 had had its difficult moments for  Kepa, 2019-20 would be an outright disaster.  

  • His PSxG-GA would fall further, down  to -0.29 and the 9th percentile,  

  • and he would also lose his place on more than  one occasion to understudy Willy Caballero,  

  • most notably in the FA Cup, where Chelsea  would reach the final before losing to Arsenal.

  • There were certainly lowlights. Two ugly goals  conceded at Goodison Park, a fatal reticence to  

  • leave his line against Valencia, and more trouble  at corners in a loss to West Ham. If the arms-wing  

  • was one of his hallmarks, then a failure to  be aggressive or commanding was unfortunately  

  • another. At just 1.86m Kepa wasn’t tall for  a Premier League goalkeeper. Courtois, his  

  • predecessor, is 2m in height, Manchester United’s  David De Gea is 1.92m and Liverpool’s Alisson is  

  • 1.91m. Whether height was a contributing factor  or not, Kepa certainly seemed timid at times.

  • Again, though, context is importantacross  both seasons. Maurizio Sarri spent his year  

  • in London engaged in a culture war with  the club’s fans and unable to truly impose  

  • his style. His successor, Frank Lampard, hadreign blighted by terrible defensive problems.  

  • They were vulnerable to the counter-attack  and dreadful at defending set-pieces.  

  • During that 2019-20 season, Chelsea conceded  goals from 8.2% of the corners they faced,  

  • almost double that of any side in the division.

  • Was Kepa to blame for that or was he  a victim of it? Likely both. He was a  

  • flawed and increasingly fragile goalkeeper who  suffered to much scrutiny and made mistakes,  

  • but who also wasn’t adequately protected by the  players or system ahead of him. That represents a  

  • failing on his part, of course, but also those who  coached him, who were unable to remedy his issues.

  • Either way, when Chelsea signed Edouard Mendy  in September 2020, it was no coincidence that  

  • they had identified a more physically dominant  and commanding goalkeeper to take Kepa’s place,  

  • or that the stability Mendy offers  has made him virtually immovable.

  • What next for Kepa? The damage to his  reputation and confidence has made a  

  • move to a similar-sized club unlikely, and  his reported £155,000/week wage puts him  

  • out of reach for a lot of clubs with whom he might  rebuild his career and realise his obvious talent.

In the summer of 2018, Chelsea paid £71.6m  for Athletic Club’s Kepa Arrizabalaga  

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What happened to Chelsea's £71.6m goalkeeper?

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    Louis Clarke posted on 2022/07/01
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