Chelsea’s free-spending transfer business this summer has delighted fans, but Kepa Arrizabalaga’s continued presence at the Bridge jars with his brutal exclusion from the team at the crux end of the season. Dave Olsen (@Dave_olsen16) gives his take on why Kepa could reinvent himself at Chelsea next season.
Kepa has divided Chelsea fans for the past two years since becoming the club’s record transfer in the summer of 2018. Though the deal to prize Kai Havertz away from Bayer Leverkusen seems set to eclipse the £70 million transfer fee paid in Chelsea’s panicked search for a goalkeeper after the departure of Thibaut Courtois, it is difficult to ignore Kepa’s situation.
The key statistic used to determine the quality of a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping abilities is known as the ‘post-shot expected goals against differential’ – or PSxGA +/- for short. Expected goals against is an advanced metric which predicts how many goals a team would expect to concede based on the quality of chances it presents to opposing teams. However, it is unfair to judge keepers solely based on this metric, as it hides the effect of good or bad finishing on whether the goalkeeper should or should not save a shot. Post-shot expected goals against, however, isolates the quality of the goalkeeper by taking into account the quality of the shot when determining the probability of a goal being conceded.
Then, comparing this figure over the course of a season to the actual goals conceded gives a differential (+/-), where a positive number means the goalkeeper has performed above expectations, and a negative number means they have let in more goals than would be expected. Dividing this by the number of minutes played and multiplying by 90 gives a “per-90” figure, which can be used to accurately compare goalkeepers.
Complex statistical explanations out of the way, how has Kepa done? Certainly, his performance in the 2019/20 season, where his per-90 PSxGA +/- was -0.29 and his total PSxGA +/- was -9.6, was well below par. These figures place him at the very bottom of the Premier League goalkeepers for shot-stopping. But last season is not the full story. Under Maurizio Sarri in 2018-2019, his per-90 figure was -0.04, and the total was -1.4. Though not ideal, slightly negative differentials are not uncommon for young goalkeepers still learning their trade. These figures put him solidly mid-table of all the goalkeepers, ahead of even Kasper Schmeichel and Rui Patricio, two well-regarded shot-stoppers. Digging even deeper, his metrics in La Liga in the 2017/18 season placed him at ninth, with a decidedly positive per-90 value of 0.10.
Taking into account his sweeping abilities and technical ability, which certainly pass the eye test and are important for modern goalkeepers, Kepa should not be thought of as a bad goalkeeper.
But clearly, last season was not a good season for him. One potential reason is a lapse in confidence, partly due to the pressure of his exorbitant transfer fee. Confidence – or a lack of confidence – is also infectious. A shaky defence with little commanding presence will have contributed to his panicked performances, as has been clear at many of Chelsea’s defensive set-pieces this season. A good example came from the end of the penultimate game of the Premier League season, when a free-kick was swung into the Chelsea six-yard box with the scores already at 5-3. Tammy Abraham and Kurt Zouma fail to deal with the ball, with Abraham ducking underneath it. The cries of “Kepa!” are audible as the ball drifts towards Van Dijk at the back post, but, in truth, a lack of commanding presence in the box from defenders is to blame. Kepa’s confidence, however, still takes the battering from the situation. Defenders leave the box with anonymity after a defensive mix-up, and the goalkeeper is the easy target for them, coaches, and the pundits.
Kepa’s lack of confidence was manifest in his weak or non-existent attempts to save Trent Alexander-Arnold’s and Kevin de Bruyne’s free kicks, as well as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal for Liverpool to make it 5-3 and put the game beyond doubt, after the lockdown. Hilario’s coaching – a curious choice for a goalkeeping coach given his sub-par performances as a Chelsea player – may not have done much to repair his confidence either.
Frank Lampard, by leaving him out for Chelsea’s final game against Wolves, the FA Cup Final against Arsenal, and the second leg against Bayern Munich, showed he does not trust Kepa. But he doesn’t seem to trust Caballero either. After leaving Kepa out for much of February, Caballero was dropped for the FA Cup game against Liverpool, sitting out every game until the final day of the season. However, Marina Granovskaia and Petr Cech seem to be at odds with the Chelsea boss. They prefer that Kepa stays at Chelsea to revive his career. Lampard, for his part, seems to be willing to go along with this plan, probably because he knows the club has given him a lot of backing in the transfer market, with Havertz set to arrive and Timo Werner, Thiago Silva, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell already at the club. Kepa started against Brighton despite the availability of Caballero and Jamie Cumming.
Put simply, the club have two motives for keeping Arrizabalaga. First, they recognise it would be embarrassing for the 70-million-pound goalkeeper to be labelled as an expensive flop and bad business by Chelsea. Second, they have a pragmatic focus on helping to recoup more of the fee or improving his performance for Chelsea. Conventional economics would suggest that Chelsea should ignore the “sunk cost” – the transfer fee already paid for Kepa – in order to avoid future damage. Granovskaia and Cech should, in essence, ignore their hurt pride and make an objective decision about what is best for Kepa’s value and the club’s performance.
Perhaps, though, they have done this, deciding that what is best is for Kepa to stay, with a view to either establishing himself at Chelsea or improving his value. Either way, all paths forward are fraught with risks and stumbling blocks. One way in which Chelsea can mitigate this risk is by bringing in another first-team goalkeeper to provide healthy competition with Kepa. This incoming player would have to show decent metrics, be a confident goalkeeper, and be relatively cheap, to avoid further losses and embarrassing flops. Two names, both from Ligue 1, have emerged. Edouard Mendy appears to be the primary target. The 27-year-old Rennes keeper had +0.07 per-90 PSxGA +/- figure last season, and guided his team to a Champions League spot. Pedrag Rajkovic has far better metrics and is younger, at 23 years of age, but there is a suggestion that Chelsea don’t want another young player with potentially fragile confidence.
This solution provides Chelsea with a way forward that provides a footballing insurance package in Edouard Mendy, and also suits the financial imperatives for the club with regard to Kepa. The additional competition may well spur Kepa on and improve his performances, with no club being obviously willing to take him and his wages on in a potential loan deal.
With every minute that ticks by, it looks increasingly likely that Kepa will stay at Chelsea. If he does, he will have to put last season’s horror show behind him and recapture his early form under Sarri and in La Liga. Failure to do so would signal the definitive end of his career at the Bridge.