From the undisputed worst to among the best in the Premier League, Kepa Arrizabalaga is no longer a laughing stock, and could save Chelsea another £72m.
Kepa Arrizabalaga was supposed to be done at Chelsea. He was a laughing stock throughout the 2019-20 season, during which he was comfortably the worst goalkeeper in the Premier League and among the poorest in the league’s history.
Kepa had hardly proved himself to be a £72m goalkeeper in his first season, but there were signs of progress having joined in the summer of 2018 and hope that given he was just 24 he could develop into a player worthy of their spot in a top Premier League side.
It can’t be a coincidence that his slump came on the back of his boldfaced decision not to come off in the 2019 League Cup final – a stunt which also meant he garnered little sympathy as his career collapsed over the the next year. He looked absent, metaphorically, and at times literally, for Chelsea, with errors leading to more errors, and opposition teams targeting him at any given opportunity.
Having already suffered the ignominy of losing his place to 39-year-old Willy Caballero at the start of the 2020-21 season, Kepa was then firmly planted on the bench and watched as Edouard Mendy conceded three goals in 12 games during Chelsea’s Champions League -winning campaign and was named Europe’s best goalkeeper. Kepa can’t have enjoyed those celebrations all that much.
But he recovered last season and Chelsea didn’t suffer to a notable degree when Mendy was out injured or rested by Thomas Tuchel. Kepa was the hero of the Super Cup, coming off the bench for the penalty shootout and saving the crucial spot-kick.
But as if to remind the Spaniard of his darkest period, having once again been called upon purely for the penalty shootout, this time in the League Cup final, the Spaniard blasted the 22nd spot-kick over the bar having failed to save any of Liverpool’s 11 attempts. Three years after the most regrettable game of his professional career, Kepa had quite possibly just experienced the second.
But on this occasion, that setback has spurred Kepa on.
With Mendy’s form patchy at best it was assumed Chelsea would have to go back into the transfer market with a top goalkeeper absolutely necessary to challenge for the top trophies. But Kepa’s redemption has at least reduced that need, and he may even have put those thoughts to bed.
Only Nick Pope (0.55) has conceded fewer goals per 90 minutes than Kepa (0.78), and he is now also the second best goalkeeper in the Premier League, behind Alisson (+8.1), according to post shot expected goals minus goals allowed ( PSxG+/-), which is a measure of how likely the goalkeeper is to save a shot with the number of goals conceded subtracted.
And it’s that statistic which illustrates both how bad Kepa was and how good he’s become. This season, the 28-year-old has a PSxG+/- score of +6.8, compared to -11.3 in 2019-20, which left him way below Angus Gunn (-7.5), who was the second worst in the division.
Goalkeeping is about more than shot-stopping these days, and Kepa still makes the odd ricket with the ball at his feet, but that’s true of Alisson and other goalkeepers considered to be among the best in the world.
It’s difficult to dissociate this Kepa with the one the masses took such apparent joy in being one of the biggest flops in history. But he is now, judging both qualitatively and quantitatively, one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. And for the recovery from his low – which is about as low as it’s possible for a Premier League footballer to be – Kepa, and whoever has been working with him on and off the pitch, deserve huge credit.
And it makes you wonder how much Chelsea would be willing to pay for Kepa now were he not already their player. Even with the exorbitant sums they’re spending on new players the fee would probably fall short of £72m, but that’s due to his age as much as anything. A goalkeeper playing this well and this consistently in their early twenties could easily lead Chelsea to spend that much.
But now a new goalkeeper is not a priority. In their quest to get back to the top Chelsea may already have the guy between the sticks to get them there. And nobody saw it coming.