”I wouldn’t say I like Peter all that much, but as a character and a goalkeeper, you’d want him in goal for you. He wasn’t great with his feet the most important thing is that he was good with his hands. Obviously back then, it wasn’t all about playing out from the back. But Peter obviously saved us a lot of big games; big personality, big character and a tough guy. If you look back at our success with United, he played a huge part in it.”
Roy Keane on Peter Schmeichel, February 2020, Monday Night Football, Sky Sports
I know what you’re thinking. Roy Keane praising someone is not something you see all that often. This is a testament to the immense standards set by Peter Schmeichel, a leader who combined skill with consistency and perseverance and brought the best out of his teammates and enjoyed silverware throughout his career at Manchester United. And that praise coming from probably the most professional and demanding footballer England has ever seen is an icing on the cake.
A player who doesn’t quite have the backing of his manager or his club is Spanish goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, who signed for Chelsea in 2018 for 70 million euros, making him the most expensive keeper of all time. With that hefty price tag came a certain level of expectation and often players succumb to the sheer pressure of delivering. The rumour mill spinning alongside their names doesn’t help their cause either. To replace Thibaut Courtois in goal, who finally completed his long-desired move to Spanish giants, Real Madrid, was always going to be a big ask but you’d think a player bought for that price would settle in and deliver on a consistent basis eventually.
Chelsea have lacked leadership in defence for a few years now. Though I really rate Cezar Azpilicueta as a defender and a servant to Chelsea and my Fantasy Premier League team over the years, I often say that the Chelsea hierarchy never really replaced John Terry, a man who even when out of the squad was always pushing people on to deliver their best and to be the best version of themselves. You’d wonder that a John Terry would put an arm round Kepa’s shoulder and give him that extra bit of belief and reassurance that a keeper lacking confidence so desperately requires. You won’t be tagged ‘dreamy’ if you thought that Kepa would’ve thrived at Chelsea had he been surrounded by great players such as Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and Frank Lampard himself. Ever since the league-winning 2016-17 season, Chelsea have failed to set up a reliable defence and while the recent acquisitions of Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell and Malang Sarr will only help the cause, the investment comes too late for the 25-year old, whose place in the side is in serious question with Chelsea having officially announced the arrival of Senegalese-French goalkeeper Edouard Mendy from Rennes.
Great players are known for their quality but more importantly, they bring the best out of their teammates and while Kepa didn’t really have much competition between the sticks with Willy Caballero on the bench, sometimes that large presence beside you in the dressing room can do absolute wonders for your self-confidence. Kepa was drowning in the pool of doubt and he wasn’t surrounded by members of the squad who could’ve saved him. He didn’t help make his case either. I have nothing against the guy, but Kepa is the not-so-proud owner of the worst save percentage in all of Europe’s top five leagues since joining Chelsea. During that period, out of a massive 98 goalkeepers who have played more than 1,500 minutes, 97 have a better save percentage than him. There are stats that can provide more insight and help us delve deeper but I feel sorry for the lad to even include those.
We have witnessed David de Gea, arguably still one of the world’s best goalkeepers, make multiple high-profile blunders over the last few years. Confidence can weigh heavily on most players in the modern game. But when it happens to a goalkeeper, the mistakes are amplified tenfold. If you’re a striker, it’s easy to be forgiven for missing a goal-scoring opportunity because you can always put another one away; but when it comes to a keeper, you can pull off a dozen saves during the course of a game but one error directly leading to goal will define your performance. When a midfielder turns the ball over because his confidence is low, or a defender misses a tackle because he is struggling for form, of course, it can be talked about. However, most of the time, an outfield player’s mistakes are only dwelled on when they directly result in a goal. In almost every instance that a goalkeeper makes a mistake, they are punished. Perhaps that is just an unfortunate drawback of playing in goal for your time and even though we’re all human at the end of the day, you could make a case that professional goalkeepers must learn to deal with this fact and that it should only drive them on to better their individual performances.
You don’t need to look further than Thierry Henry at Highbury, John Terry at Stamford Bridge or even David Silva at The Etihad Stadium to realise how a strong bond with the fans can help solidify your position at a club. If you’ve truly got the backing of the fans, you know that they’ll be a hundred percent behind you should you encounter a sticky patch of form somewhere along the way. Whether it be due to his refusal to come off against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final in 2019 or just the number of ‘silly goals’ he concedes, Chelsea fans haven’t warmed up to Kepa in his two-year spell at the club. Though Kepa has had spells that have displayed his true ability; stunning saves against Watford at Vicarage Road in the 2019-20 season proved many a critic wrong; a lack of confidence can hurt your performances to an extent that you start questioning each of your moves and with the recurring rise of social media, repeatedly seeing Chelsea fans pray that Kepa doesn’t make any mistakes in the next game sums up in a way his image in fans’ minds.
He put in strong performances against Merseyside teams Liverpool and Everton just before the campaign was cut short. It’s clear to me even as a rival fan that the ability was always there but it simply struggled to flourish week-in week-out. With everything said, it could’ve turned out to be a different saga. You cannot help but feel sorry for the lad after seeing his recent howlers against Brighton and Liverpool in successive league games; he’s trying too hard and is self-conscious of his decisions but I ask you, can you really blame him? Put yourself in his position and ask yourself what you would do differently.
For Chelsea fans, it may be end of an unpleasant chapter and while they are already backing Edouard Mendy for selection at The Hawthorns come Saturday but sometimes things aren’t meant to be. We’ve seen established international footballers struggle to make a significant impact in England, be it Diego Forlan, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao or even Alvaro Morata. It certainly isn’t the end of the world for a young man in his prime with his best years ahead of him. However, to sum up, the marriage between Chelsea and Kepa, while it lasts, is a failed one to say the least and will surely leave a sour taste in Blues’ fans minds.