Goalkeepers are…different. I would know, I was one.
I have also trained quite a few who were also a bit “out there,” including one who was actually allergic to grass. Yes, I said allergic…to…GRASS! (Apologies for calling you out Hunter.) But think about it, in what other position in all of sport do you do your primary training away from the rest of the team, spend the majority of game time alone with your own thoughts, and live in a universe where people actually do not want you to do that much during the game because you doing LESS work likely means things are going better then you doing more work? So, yes, we almost have to be a little different to be goalkeepers, but what makes us different, can also help to make us great.
Chelsea fans, at least in most recent history, have been a bit spoiled. For many years we were graced by the presence of Petr Cech, one of the all-time greats, between the posts at Stamford Bridge. After his time had passed, we were then presented with a prospect who many thought would be one of the next greats- Thibaut Courtois. But that short-lived fairytale unfortunately died a bitter and painful death.
Then entered Kepa Arrizabalaga. The Spaniard arrived from Athletic Bilbao for a world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper of £71.6mil. While the fee was high largely due to the release clause attached to the improved contract he had signed with Bilbao eight months prior as a move to fend off interest from Real Madrid, it did not help diminish the already high expectations placed on him by those accustomed to the standards of Cech and Courtois.
Perhaps somewhat fortunately for Kepa, any potential pressure or criticism he may have faced during his first season in London was primarily focused in a different direction, towards Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho to be specific. One sunny afternoon at Wembley aside, a third place finish in the Premier League and a winner’s medal from the Europa League (aided in large part by his exploits in the semi-final penalty shootout against Eintracth Frankfurt), would seemingly have had Kepa feeling pretty good about his first season in West London.
This season however, things have been different. Now, with a new manager in Frank Lampard and a notable number of new teammates, a bit more of the Stamford Bridge limelight has been shining in his direction. Unfortunately for Arrizabalaga, that limelight turned into a bit of a hot-seat as Chelsea’s poor defensive record continued to mount throughout the season, and with rumors leaking to the press about Lampard’s lack of conviction in Kepa being the man he wanted between the posts going forward. Ultimately, the lack of clean sheets and alarming goalkeeping metrics led Lampard to remove Arrizabalaga from the team in favor of 38-yr-old Wily Caballero in late January. A bit over a month on, and after successive clean sheets against Liverpool in the FA Cup and Everton in the Premier League, Kepa appears to be back in Lampard’s good graces, at least for the remainder of this season. The question remains, however, can Kepa show Lampard and Chelsea that he is the goalkeeper worth putting their trust upon? Or will he, like he has a few too many times this season, let this second chance slip right through?
Can’t Hide from Stats
Look, there is no getting around it, Kepa’s goalkeeping metrics this year are bad, VERY bad. For PL goalkeepers who have played over 1000 minutes, Kepa is last in save percentage at just 51%, 19% behind the leader, Alisson, who sits at 70%. In the “Goals Prevented” stat, Kepa is also dead last, conceding almost eight MORE goals then should be expected, with the league’s best in this area, Palace’s Vicente Guaita, keeping out almost seven goals that should have gone in. Add in the fact that the team metrics show that Chelsea’s defense is the second best in the league (only behind Liverpool) in preventing opponents’ shots on goal, and you can start to see there may be an issue to address here.
But personally, I am not one that is dependent on stats, especially when it comes to goalkeepers. Why? For one, I was taught by my goalkeeping trainer that goalkeepers are only there to cover up the mistakes the 10 players in front of them make. I will admit, however, this is not 100% accurate as goalkeepers and field players do work in tandem on the defensive aspect of the game. More importantly for me in, let’s say “diminishing” stats when it comes to goalkeeping, is the simple fact that stats can only account for- at most- 25% (and that may still be a bit generous) of a goalkeeper’s responsibilities on the field. Don’t believe me? That’s fine, but let me explain why and then we can circle back.
What Makes a Keeper
The first thing we have to understand is what makes a goalkeeper. After all, there has to be something different that almost mandates a separate goalkeeping coach on every coaching staff right? The reality is, understanding and coaching the game, and understanding and coaching goalkeepers, are quite often two separate things. Here in the U.S. for example, there is a distinct separation between coaching badges, and goalkeeper certifications within the structure of US Soccer’s licensing platform. In fact if you stroll by most youth practices at the local park or nearby school, very rarely will you even be able to tell who the goalkeeper is because there will not be a set of gloves in sight. Everyone knows they need one, but very few know what to do with one when they have them.
At the most basic level, I would describe a goalkeeper’s skill set in six parts.
“The Coach on the field”. Ever heard that before? It is one of the first things I was taught when I became a goalkeeper, and it is one of the first things I communicate to any keeper I work with- and it is most likely the reason I actually began coaching. Why is this a thing? Well, simple really. It is not because keepers are smarter than the rest of the players on the field (we are, but we can have that discussion later), it is because keepers are the only players on the field that can see every other player on the field at the same time. Think about it, if you are playing right wing, can you see what the left back is doing? No. But the keeper can.
Have you ever been to a youth game with 100 or so fans in the ground, where you could actually hear the communication on the field? Who is doing most of that communicating? The goalkeeper. If you haven’t seen this, find one of the Serie A or UCL games scheduled to be played behind closed doors on TV and see what you can pick up.
Goalkeeping is all about communicating with your teammates on the field: Marking up at corners, setting the defense on free kicks, tracking runners in open play, directing first and second defenders with an attacker on the ball, closing gaps between the lines, ensuring positional balance across the field, and the list goes on. Goalkeepers see it all, and are the only ones who can make necessary adjustments from the field during play. Perhaps that is why ex-goalkeepers make for good coaches, as the more we are able to see and control before the ball gets to the box, the better off we often are. After all, like I tell most of my keepers, you should always want to see, understand, and be in control of what is happening in front of you, because it beats the heck out of standing inside the 18 yard box talking to yourself for 90 minutes.
You can only save what you are in a position to save. Some may say a goalkeepers positioning is inside the box, that’s simple. Well, yes, but no. What I am talking about here is angles and geometry. As a keeper, you are constantly reading the play, and moving yourself into the best position for a potential save. This may go unnoticed by some, but it can be absolutely crucial for top keepers to master.
Imagine with me if you will a standard goal, eight-yards wide, eight-feet high (the metric crowd can do their conversions). Now, let’s say we had a long rope, and we tied one end to one post, and the other end to the other post. Now, grab the rope and walk to any point you want, let’s say inside the 18 for this exercise. When you get to that point, look at what you have done, you have created a triangle, with points at each goal post, and your hands.
Why this little thought exercise? For even the world’s best goalkeepers, covering the 192 sq. ft. of the goal completely is simply impossible. To try and solve this problem, the goalkeeper has to work the angles. Go back to the goal and the rope. The triangle you created with the rope is the possible trajectory of a shot on goal taken from the point where you are holding the rope. In other words, if you had a ball at the point you chose, to score a goal the ball would have to be inside the triangle you created. This benefits the goalkeeper as the goalkeeper now has an angle to work with. The goalkeeper’s job is now to cover that triangle instead of the entire goal. The way that I teach positioning on shots, is for the keeper to insert themselves into the triangle at the exact point where they can reach both sides of the triangle with no more than a step and a dive either direction.
Now imagine this happening every time the ball moves. Every time a new triangle is created the goalkeeper has a new position in that triangle to cover the potential shot. Remember, this is only from open play and not even considering corner kicks and free-kick positioning philosophies, Penalty techniques, and 1 v. 1’s. Even putting those lengthy discussions aside and focusing on open play, and admitting that other factors like distance from goal and opponent skill-level play their part, we can still see that understanding basic angles and positioning for a goalkeeper is absolutely crucial.
3) Instinct and Decision Making
Some people will say that you can’t teach goal scoring instincts, and that is probably more true than false, but the same can probably be said for goalkeeping instincts. The awareness of danger means knowing when to come rushing out of the box to clear a ball when your last defender gets beat 40 yards up the field; knowing when to come flying into 7-8 players inside the box to claim a corner or a cross out of midair; and knowing when to punch, catch, or parry that shot that may be heading for the crossbar (or it may just find its way under), are all decisions that rely on instinct.
Instinct alone however, is not quite enough. You need conviction, the ability to use your instinct, make a decision, and stick with it. If you make the decision to come for the corner, you better go for it, and you better get it. There are very few worse things for a goalkeeper than making a decision only to change their minds half way through, as that often results in a goalkeeper stranded in no man’s land as the ball goes to the exact place you did not want it to go.
Instincts come with experience, conviction with confidence and personality. In order to be the best goalkeeper you can be, you better bring both.
4) Reaction, Reflex, Agility, and Strength
The most recognizable goalkeeping skill by far, is the basic ability to make a save. Even when positioned well, the goalkeeper must have the ability to react to shots that are hit in excess of 80 miles per hour at times, shots that are deflected by another attacker or defending teammate (or inflatable beach ball, sorry Liverpool fans), or multiple shots in quick succession. Not only do they need the reflexes to react, but the agility to reach the shot, whether high, low, or off to either side, and the strength to make the save and keep the ball out of the net- with a hand, arm, foot, leg, chest, or occasional face.
More and more, goalkeeper distribution is becoming an integral part of the game. Modern goalkeepers are not only expected to be able to distribute any shots or crosses they collect, but are also expected to be able to receive back passes and find open teammates with the same accuracy of their midfield teammates.
There are obviously those more adept at this than others, your Ederson and Alisson’s vs. your De Gea and Leno’s for example. Naturally, while those who were not brought up this way are still around (and especially when they are matched with coaches who insist on playing out from the back consistently,*cough..Emery..cough*), it is an area that opposing teams have, and will, continue to pick on and try to pillage goal-scoring opportunity gifted to them by an opposing keeper.
If I am really being honest, goalkeepers need a bit of swag in their game- a bit of, almost arrogance or defiance, to be at their best. Goalkeepers face the immense responsibility of being the last line knowing that if you fail, there is no one behind you to save you. To deal with that burden, you need a short memory, and confidence.
Confidence can be inherent in a person’s personality, or come from a string of good saves or good performances. Likewise, confidence can disappear after a string of poor performances or mistakes. Confidence can allow you to move past the mistake you made five minutes ago and to make the save on the shot coming your way now- just like a lack of confidence can snowball the error five minutes ago into a bigger error on the next ball. In an ideal world, confidence can be separated from performances, but in the real world of social media and constant media coverage, confident goalkeepers, independent of form or results, are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
So…Back to Those Stats
Like I mentioned before, Kepa’s stats are not good this season, but those stats are a measurement of what? Primarily shot stopping, mixed with a bit of positioning and decision making. So the question now becomes a two part question when deciding if Kepa is Chelsea’s keeper of the future:
Part 1 – Has Kepa showed enough in the other areas of the game that are not shown in stats to make up for the deficiencies he has shown in the statistical categories?
Part 2 – Are this season’s stats indicative of Kepa as a goalkeeper, or are they a sophomore slump that can be recovered with more confidence, better training, the full backing of Frank, etc..?
My answer is, I don’t know, and that may be an actual answer itself. I do not believe Kepa’s level is that of the worst statistical goalkeeper in the Premier League, after all he is Spain’s number-one choice ahead of David De Gea. But I am also unsure that he has the capacity to fully recover and elevate his level to that required to compete with the world’s best. Look at it this way, let’s say we were grading Kepa like you would grade a test in school, and break it down into the six categories to score him:
Scoring: A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0. Add your total, divide by 6.
- Communication ______
- Positioning ______
- Instinct and Decision Making ______
- Reaction, Reflex, Agility, and Strength ______
- Distribution ______
- Confidence ______
How did you score Kepa? If you did it honestly, I imagine it was pretty difficult. What is maybe more important here, is not what score you gave Kepa, but what score you expect for Kepa. Now the big question, what if Frank did this? How would he score Kepa, and what score would he expect from Kepa, because the answer to the question of whether or not Frank will be comfortable putting the club’s future in Kepa’s hands, could very well depend on the answer to that question.
So what are Frank’s options then? Well for this season, quite obviously, play Kepa, or play Caballero, and after restoring him to the team for Liverpool and back-to-back shut-outs against Liverpool and Everton, it appears Frank is leaning toward “Play Kepa” for the rest of this season.
What about next season? The answer to that question is directly related to Frank’s answer to the questions above, but with Kepa entering the third year of his seven-year deal, Frank really has three options: play Kepa, loan/sell and replace Kepa, or sign competition for Kepa.
Pretty straight forward, as long as Frank believes, and the rest of the team believes in Kepa, he stays as the number one. However, even if he stays as number one, with Caballero getting closer to the end, a second goalkeeper serving as either completion for Kepa or a back-up to Kepa, may still be required.
Sign Competition for Kepa
This, right now at least, seems the most likely avenue that Lampard takes this summer. Now this is partly due to the rumored potential standoff between Frank and Marina (who spearheaded the signing of Kepa) regarding any decision to give up on the record signing after only two seasons. Whether or not that is or would become an actual issue we will never know. But like I mentioned before, with current number two Caballero approaching 40, and number three Jamie Cumming not quite looking the part of a long-term PL goalkeeper quite yet, even if Kepa stays, another goalkeeper may need to be brought in.
Should this be the route Chelsea goes, it will be interesting to see if it is truly treated as a competition signing, or a back-up signing.
While it may be unrealistic (or at the very least extremely complicated as he is currently in the middle of year one of a two-year loan), my choice would be the young French goalkeeper Alban Lafont. The 6’4, 21-yr-old has managed 10 clean sheets in League 1 with Nantes, who currently sit 13th in Ligue 1, despite allowing the seventh fewest goals in the league. Lafont was touted as one of the best goalkeeping prospects in Europe at Toulouse before moving to spend last season as Fiorentina’s number one in Italy- a move that just simply did not work out. He is a keeper capable of the spectacular save, but perhaps not polished enough to be a PL number one quite yet. But having a talented prospect like Lafont pushing Kepa day-in and day-out could be just what is needed to make-or-break his Chelsea career.
This gained serious traction when Lampard decided to bench Kepa for the Leicester game. Rumors about his former club being interested in bringing him back, rumors of a potential swap-deal with Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, and rumored interest in Ajax keeper Andre Onana and Milan’s prodigy Gianluigi Donnarumma, have all ensued and been circulating as of late. Whether any of those are even remotely accurate is to be determined I suppose (my money is that Oblak swap is NOT). What we do know is that if Frank decides to move on from Kepa, there are certainly interesting options to evaluate and pursue.
But the most important point regarding the final decision with Kepa and the goalkeeping position as a whole (both this season and beyond), is that it should be in the hands of one person, Frank Lampard.