In the month of January in 2018, Real Madrid were prepared to pay the €20 Million release clause for Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga. However, the Los Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane opted to wait patiently until the summer when he could land his first choice, Thibaut Courtois. Following this saga, Bilbao offered Kepa a new seven and a half year deal. By this time, he had established himself as one of the best shot stoppers in Spain.
Immediately after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Thibaut Courtois informed Chelsea of his decision not to return to London. This left Chelsea in a position no club wanted to be in, and they had to go all out for a new shot-stopper. The Blues tried to sign Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak unsuccessfully, and A.S Roma’s Alisson preferred to move to Merseyside giants, Liverpool. Chelsea eventually settled for the less-heralded Kepa on a seven year deal for a handsome sum of 72 Million Pounds, making him the most expensive goalkeeper of all time.
In his debut season, Kepa was instrumental in Chelsea’s Europa League winning campaign, but the most memorable moment of his season by far was his on-field confrontation with manager Maurizio Sarri; during extra time of the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, a game in which he refused to be substituted after he seemingly picked up an injury. Afterwards, he was left on the bench for a number of matches as a punishment. He ended the season on a high, playing a starring role as Chelsea romped to the European title and also secured a third placed finish in the league. He had a save percentage of 67.8% in the league, keeping 14 clean sheets as he finished the race for the league’s golden glove in third place behind Liverpool’s Alisson and Manchester City keeper, Ederson.
Kepa really fit into Maurizio Sarri’s style, as he wanted a keeper who was comfortable with the ball at his feet. When Frank Lampard arrived in the following season, Kepa’s job requirements remained the same. The 2019/2020 season started with a drubbing at the hand of Manchester United, but the team bounced back well and put up a spirited performance against Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup, with Kepa making a number of crucial saves to deny Mo Salah and Virgil Van Dijk, before eventually losing on penalties. However, Kepa’s performances began to drop, and he started to let in questionable goals.
Eventually, he was dropped for 39-year-old backup keeper, Willy Caballero, who played in a number of league matches, as well as in the UEFA Champions League against Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge. Before the suspension of football due to COVID however, Kepa was recalled into the team, and provided two immaculate performances against Liverpool and Everton, keeping two clean sheets. However, when the league resumed, he delivered some shaky performances, with the climax coming at Liverpool where after shipping in five goals, the defenders went berserk on him for not coming to claim a simple cross floated across his six-yard area. After this game, he ended up getting dropped again, and did not play a single minute till the season ended. By the end of the season, he had kept only eight clean sheets with had a save percentage of 53.9%, one of the lowest in Europe’s top five leagues.
During the transfer window that preceded the commencement of the 2020/2021 season, speculation was rife about Chelsea being in the market for a new goalkeeper. The most notable links were to Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak and Andre Onana of Ajax, with some other names being speculated as well. In spite of the links, Frank Lampard publicly backed Kepa as his first choice goal stopper, and said he was sure that Kepa would keep his place between the sticks. In the opening game of the season, Kepa allowed a long range Leandro Trossard shot to squirm underneath him to draw Brighton level in a game that Chelsea eventually won 3-1, and also, in the second game against Liverpool, he spent too much time in possession, and Sadio Mane picked his pocket to double Liverpool’s lead in a 2-0 defeat. Shortly afterwards, Edouard Mendy was announced as Chelsea’s latest signing in the goalkeeping department.
Since Mendy’s debut in a Chelsea shirt, Kepa has only taken to the field twice, one time against Southampton when Mendy was injured, and the other in a dead rubber Champions League tie against Krasnodar. He failed to keep a clean sheet in either of those games. On the other hand, Mendy has kept four clean sheets in five Champions League appearances, and another five in nine league appearances. Mendy has a save percentage of 75% in the league, compared with Kepa’s 57.1%.
Kepa’s situation at Chelsea remains delicately poised, as it looks like the coach and even the defenders have very little confidence in his ability. It remains to be seen however, what the club decides to do with him. Do they keep him as a back-up option or sell him at a loss, or send him out on loan, just as Liverpool did with Loris Karius? It is up to the club and the player to decide on the best line of action to take, as Edouard Mendy seems to have made the number one shirt his. Constant links to young AC Milan prospect Gianluigi Donnarumma do not help the Spaniard’s career at the Pride of London either. A loan might be the best option for Kepa, where he can regain his confidence and play regularly ahead of next year’s Euros, or he could leave on a permanent deal, although the club’s higher-ups would not be pleased with this, as no club would be willing to meet their valuation of Kepa as a result of his performances, coupled with the pandemic leaving most clubs in a financially weak position.
Written by- Sulayman (@Sulayman_Salah)
Cover photo- Goal.com