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The £72m Kepa Conundrum

It’s not news that a significant portion of the active Chelsea fan base on social media is quite reactionary. With conversations ranging ...

It’s not news that a significant portion of the active Chelsea fan base on social media is quite reactionary. With conversations ranging from players that should be sold, to those that should be benched and more recently whether the manager should go or stay. Different opinions backed by different arguments litter the timelines at the blast of the final whistle after every match that fails to end in a Chelsea win.

But the biggest debate these days has been centred around goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, a £72m record purchase from Atlético Bilbao that was meant to be the long term solution to Chelsea’s goalkeeping problems after Thibaut Courtois successfully engineered his way to Real Madrid. But the reaction from fans and some pundits have been shocking. Despite being a club legend, Lampard has not been spared. Some critics have even gone as far as claiming there are tensions between the goalkeeper and the manager. A very laughable idea.

How quick are we to forget? 

While he may be considered quiet, something seems off about the Spain number one’s attitude, like he hears or listens to just himself. The first thing that comes to mind about that statement is the incident during the Carabao Cup final last season against Manchester City where he displayed an unprecedented level of public insubordination and disrespect towards Sarri, officials and a more senior player, Luiz, to the embarrassment of indeed everything Chelsea and in the process cost us a trophy.

The call for Lampard to reinstate him as the first choice isn’t backed by a valid argument. With many citing his transfer fee, others his age and the fact that he is still learning. All are not valid, not for a club like Chelsea. We can’t struggle with lots of young and barely experienced outfield players due to the transfer ban and still do the same between the sticks despite all the money spent simply because of the reasons listed above. Just like the outfield players, Kepa Arrizabalaga has to earn his place. 

The mere fact that just a year after that his world-record move, we are discussing him in the same breath with 38-year-old should-have-retired Willy Caballero speaks volumes. Let me take us down memory lane a little bit.

Let’s be honest, last season was not a fantastic one by Kepa. To be fair, as fans we were quick and eager to embarrass him to make a mockery of Courtois who was having a disastrous start to his Madrid career. It’s like having a new girlfriend/boyfriend and using them as ornaments to spite our ex.

There were occasional fantastic saves like against West Ham, Liverpool and Southampton, as is expected of players plying their trade at the highest level. His ability with the ball at his feet and to ping passes to teammates dozens of yards away definitely gave him an advantage to fit into Sarri’s preferred play-from-the-back style. His goalkeeping abilities, however, have always been questionable. Last season, he had one of the best passing accuracies. However, in terms of shot to saves, he was way behind. Recording the worst stat amongst the top 6 in the league. In fact, at the end of the season, he had a 66.7 save percentage, putting him in ninth spot in the league. Not good enough.

These problems that have kept him on the bench are not new. Lampard has just sought an alternative and has called upon the deputy who is also a Chelsea player and is there to do the job when the first choice can’t deliver. He should be getting all the support from the fans, he is doing the job. 

At the time Kepa was dropped, we all knew he wasn’t doing well enough. Let’s not forget that before that, statistics made the embarrassing revelation that he had the worst save percentage of any keeper in the league this season, with just 54% of shots saved. Compared to Allison (83%), Dean Henderson (75%), Vincente Guaita and Kasper Schmeichel (73%). That’s not down to the defence and that wasn’t sustainable.

Yes, our defence is a big problem and some things are beyond the goalkeeper but we have seen Caballero make multiple important saves in every game he has played. Saves that Kepa has less chance of making. We see the effort, determination and better coordination of the box by Willy than we ever saw from Kepa. 

Yes, Willy may have been shaky in his first couple of games but having barely had minutes this season especially in the league, it was bound to happen. Since then he has continued to keep us in games till the break as he did against Bayern and Bournemouth, recently. Generally, he has done well and I’m more confident with him if we were to concede a penalty.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. There were shocking blunders from the former Bilbao man that set the pace for what we saw at the start of this season. One particular deficiency I noticed in Kepa’s game in his first season at Chelsea was his penchant for dropping the ball when he could have easily caught and kept or properly punched the ball away, an obvious cause of panic and scramble in the box. His failure to have a strong hand behind the ball against Newcastle this season meant a 1-0 loss at Saint James Park in January.

One of the very significant improvements we’ve had with Caballero in goal is the ability to correctly time his run off his line and make himself bigger to defend one on ones. The Argentine has definitely done better there. 

Several times Kepa tends to either be a second late, rooted to a spot as the ball flies past him or is reluctant to attempt a dive for a save. Daniel’s goal at Bournemouth, Aguero’s goal in the 6-0 demolition among others are examples from last season. The very best of goalkeepers, a world record signing and indeed Chelsea standard will at least be making attempts at saving those. Kepa didn’t and he does that often. 

I was watching the last episode of Chelsea Unseen on the club’s YouTube channel and I was disappointed by what I saw from him. Yes, given, “it was merely a training session”, but from what I do know, except for banter, some of the finest moments of the players are what make up these clips put out by the club, at least those that are “not classified”. The same reluctance to make dives during the shooting practice was evident. Why he seems to find it extra difficult to go down or make attempts to be sure his coast is clear, is not quite clear to me. At 1.86m (6’1”) he is not the tallest of the lot and should be doing better.

Perhaps, this training ground performance speaks to why Lampard, a manger we’ve seen that prefers and gives opportunities to deserving younger players has made this very tough and decisive decision and has stood by it for this long. Even as punishment for that infamous Wembley incident, Sarri dropped him for just one game. Just like me, it seems the manager hasn’t seen enough to recall the Spaniard. 

The FA Cup knockout game against Liverpool may well present an opportunity for him to prove himself and reclaim his place as the club’s first-choice between the sticks, that’s assuming Lampard has seen enough in training to prove he is hungry for it. It’s not just all about keeping clean sheets, when given that chance he has to outperform his deputy in these areas that he has been deficient in.

But until that happens, neither purchase price nor age is enough to guarantee him a place ahead of Willy Caballero in his current form, even as imperfect as he is.

Written by - @RoyalBlueChels1
Edit by - @KristenPulisic

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