Football

Kepa Arrizabalaga's confidence is shot and the way Chelsea play doesn't help him | Jonathan Wilson


Kepa Arrizabalaga’s time as Chelsea goalkeeper, you suspect, will be remembered for two incidents. First there’s him on the Wembley turf, defying Maurizio Sarri and refusing to be substituted before the penalty shootout in the Carabao Cup final in 2019. And then there’s him on Sunday, playing the ball straight to Sadio Mané to concede a second against Liverpool.

Two moments 19 months apart in which the world’s most expensive goalkeeper went from self-belief that only he could get the job done to swigging awkwardly at his water bottle, apparently desperate to be anywhere but in his six-yard box having confirmed his side’s defeat.

It’s perhaps fortunate for Kepa that the stadium was empty, that he didn’t have to endure the guffaws of the away fans behind that goal, the ironic cheers every time he managed to deal with a backpass without kicking it straight to an opponent, or, perhaps even worse, the (temporary) exaggerated encouragement of his own support, sympathetically applauding moments of basic competence. Few things can sting so much for a professional sportsman as pity.

But there was something pitiable about Kepa in that final half-hour. It was one of those awful periods when a player seems consumed by self-doubt so he was having to concentrate on the most basic tasks. Suddenly even standing up required intense concentration, a feat nowhere near as easy as others make it look. When that happens, there is no option but to withdraw the keeper from the firing line. Willy Caballero will play against Barnsley in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday and by the time Chelsea face West Brom next Saturday, Édouard Mendy, soon to be signed from Rennes for £22m, could be in goal.

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The error on Sunday was the just the final straw. Even if it might reasonably be asked why nobody closed down Brighton’s Leandro Trossard on Monday, his shot skipped through Kepa’s hands. Last season Kepa saved only 54.5% of shots on target, the lowest figure for any regular Premier League goalkeeper over a full season since records began to be collated in 2003-04.

Kepa Arrizabalaga’s judgment was faulty in the incident that culminated in Andreas Christensen being sent off for hauling down Sadio Mané.



Kepa Arrizabalaga’s judgment was faulty in the incident that culminated in Andreas Christensen being sent off for hauling down Sadio Mané. Photograph: Dave Shopland/IPS/Shutterstock

Even on Sunday his scattered state of mind was evident in the first half as he chased a deflection out to the left edge of his box, only to be beaten to it by Mohamed Salah. His judgment was faulty too in the incident that brought the red card for Andreas Christensen. Mané would have got to Jordan Henderson’s long pass first; had the defender not hauled him down, there’s a significant chance Kepa would have fouled him and been dismissed.

The temptation is to conclude that Kepa simply was never that good, that Chelsea were sold a pup when they paid £71.6m for him as a 23-year-old two summers ago. And perhaps there is some truth to that. Kepa is still young for a goalkeeper. He certainly wouldn’t be the first to find the transition from La Liga to the Premier League difficult.

And yet Kepa’s first season in England was fine. His shots-on-target save percentage was 67.5%, roughly in line with the 68.2% he recorded over two seasons in La Liga at Athletic Bilbao. So why would it suddenly drop last year?

Caballero made five league starts last season. In those games, his shots-on-target save percentage was scarcely better than Kepa’s at 56.3%. It’s a small sample size, admittedly, but it is at the very least worth noting that is significantly below his career average: 71.0% over six seasons at Elche, 74% over four seasons at Málaga, 72.6% over three seasons at Manchester City. In his other five league starts for Chelsea, over the previous two seasons, he had managed 78.2%.

Scott Carson was Derby’s first choice in the Championship in 2018-19. His shots-on-target save percentage was 66% – nowhere near as low as Kepa or Caballero last season, but the fourth-worst season of his career and significantly below his overall average of 71.5%.

A pattern begins to emerge. The data set is not huge, so there must be caveats, but it appears that when Frank Lampard is in charge goalkeepers save fewer shots. There may be all kinds of reasons for that to do with coaching and man-management, but there is also a basic issue to do with how his sides play. Lampard teams concede a disproportionate number of two particular types of goal: crossed set plays and counterattacks. Both leave a goalkeeper exposed, both yield chances that are relatively easier for the attacking player to convert – close-range headers and one-on-ones. Not all shots are equal.

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The problem then magnifies itself. A goalkeeper becomes aware he is letting in a lot of goals and making very few saves and so his confidence dips, diminishing his aura of authority and making him less likely to save the next shot and so on. It’s hard to project the self-assurance, the arrogance, Kepa did at Wembley if almost half the shots hit at you fly in.

That Kepa needs a break, needs to reset and readjust, is obvious, but there is a deeper problem here. The structural issues that led Chelsea last season to let in more goals than they had in any campaign for 23 years remain to be resolved, and the wider ramifications of those deficiencies continue to be felt. Chelsea is not an easy place to be a goalkeeper.



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