Very few players at Chelsea have divided opinion as much as Kepa Arrizabalaga. The Spanish goalkeeper enjoyed a stellar debut season under Maurizio Sarri, playing a key role in the Europe League triumph. Yet this season could not have been more different, with contrasting performances reflected in the fans’ conflicting views.
Chelsea’s rollercoaster of a season has been mirrored by Arrizabalaga’s individual displays, in what has undoubtedly been a difficult season for the 25-year-old. A drubbing in the opening game against Manchester United was the worst possible start, not least for the goalkeeper who let four goals past him on the opening day.
It would take Arrizabalaga nine games to record his first clean sheet of the season, in a routine 2-0 win over Brighton. It was the first of three consecutive league clean sheets at Stamford Bridge, with the Spaniard in decent form in the early days of the campaign.
Performing well and pulling off some literal matchwinning saves, Arrizabalaga was proving crucial as ever in between the sticks. His last-second save from goalkeeper compatriot Ben Foster saw out a 2-1 win over Watford in November, before pulling off an equally impressive save to secure a victory of the same scoreline against Aston Villa.
Arrizabalaga’s overall form was encouraging, bar the odd mistake. Unfortunately, those rare errors became more common, not to mention more costly.
The 3-1 defeat to Everton was a low point, where Arrizabalaga was the culprit for the Toffees’ third goal after a poor piece of distribution. Failing to push Newcastle’s last-minute winner to safety was another grave yet unfortunate error, but the 2-2 draw with Arsenal in January proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
Neither of Arsenal’s goals were from shocking mistakes from Arrizabalaga, but many argue that he should’ve easily kept out Héctor Bellerín’s late equaliser. Nevertheless, it was one lacklustre performance too many, as the Spaniard was dropped for the trip to Leicester in favour of veteran Willy Caballero. Frankly, it had been coming.
Including the FA Cup tie with Hull City, Arrizabalaga was dropped to the bench for six consecutive games across three different competitions. Many feared it could be the end for Chelsea’s record signing, finally kicked out of the starting eleven by a pragmatic Frank Lampard who had reached his limit.
A huge confidence blow to a player already suffering from a lack of it, those few weeks on the bench must have been the toughest in the Spaniard’s entire career. Watching in agony on the bench is no sound sight for a 25-year-old player, let alone one who signed for a club record £72 million.
Arrizabalaga had to watch some huge clashes from the sidelines, in an eight-day period where Chelsea met the forces of Manchester United, Tottenham and Bayern Munich. It must’ve been absolutely agonising for Spaniard, not least because the Blues ended up conceding six goals across the trio of games.
Finally, Arrizabalaga’s shot at redemption arrived in the form of the FA Cup fifth round. League leaders Liverpool were the visitors to Stamford Bridge, and with the arrival of a cup competition, Lampard took the perfect opportunity to reinstate the number one into the starting lineup.
It was make or break for Arrizabalaga. He needed a redemption performance, and didn’t he produce just that.
The Spaniard made five saves en route to keeping the Blues’ first clean sheet in nine games, including a superb triple save in a frantic first half. Willian and Ross Barkley earned the main plaudits for their goals in the 2-0 win, but it was Arrizabalaga who stole the show in a man of the match performance.
But the redemption act wasn’t over. Five days later, Arrizabalaga was back in the Premier League starting eleven for back-to-back appearances, the first time in two months. It proved fitting that the act would end with the visit of Everton, the same team he had had a nightmare performance against three months earlier.
Another Merseyside visitor to Stamford Bridge, and another outstanding display from Arrizabalaga. He kept another clean sheet in a solid performance in goal, as the Blues recorded their first back-to-back clean sheets since early January. An 4-0 win for Chelsea, where their number one deserved huge credit once again.
Those two redemption performances were the absolute highlight of his season, a testament to his mature mentality, character and determination to regain his starting sport. Making mistakes is human nature, but recovering and strengthening them is what the very best do – including Arrizabalaga.
We have seen the very best and the lowest moments of Kepa Arrizabalaga Revuelta this season: his fantastic reflexes and outstanding mentality, blended in with occasional flaws in his shot-stopping and positioning. A mixed season has shown all the ups and downs of any footballer, though highlighting how valuable the Spaniard is to Chelsea.
Arrizabalaga has work to do and points of his game to improve, but his determination to be the best player he can be certainly cannot be doubted.
After all, there’s a reason he’s Chelsea’s number one.
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