Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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 contract – and, 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 goalkeeping – through Courtois, but also Petr Cech before him – had 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 but, more importantly, his abilities with his feet and his excellent distribution. So, he was expensive, but theoretically perfect for Sarri. In practice, not so much – although 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 or – more 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 reasoned, but 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 have a slightly 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 times, with 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 important – across 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, had a reign 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.