Kepa Arrizabalaga made his 150th Chelsea appearance away at Leicester on March 11th, in a 3-1 win.
Chelsea's Spanish goalkeeper - the most expensive of the world's shot-stopping variety to date - has had, it's fair to say, a turbulent time with Chelsea so far.
Two Carabao Cup Final appearances, both notable for the wrong reasons, coupled with two major European cup performances, both notable for the right reasons, have thus far been the most significant moments of Kepa's time with the London club.
But Wembley misunderstandings and penalty-saving heroics are only the surface of what has been a complex five years at Stamford Bridge for the 28 year old. Kepa's Chelsea career is beginning to settle, in the form of general stability over his possession of the number one shirt.
Edouard Mendy looked, in the first year and a bit of his time with the Blues, like the carpenter who had hammered the final nail in a Chelsea-branded coffin for Kepa. However, the nails simply weren't deep enough. A stuttering pre-World Cup run of form, coupled with Thomas Tuchel's sacking and Graham Potter's appointment, saw Mendy lose his place to the Spaniard, who would go on to start back to back games for the first time in seven months previous to September 2022.
Both in the Champions League, against Dinamo Zagreb and RB Salzburg respectively, Kepa had managed to wedge a foot in the door. Potter's first Premier League outing saw him name Kepa between the sticks for the third consecutive game with Mendy nursing an injury. Away at Crystal Palace, the Spaniard looked rejuvenated.
Chelsea found themselves 1-0 down to Palace early in the first half, with the Eagles continuing to mount the pressure. Eberechi Eze unleashed a low shot from 30 yards, forcing Kepa into a fully extended low diving save, parried with one hand. He was up quickly, falling into an unorthodox yet effective shape to prevent Wilfred Zaha from tapping home the rebound.
Kepa looked sharp. But it wasn't his ‘big save' ability that was really under question at Chelsea. A myriad of soft concessions across the 2019/20 season compounded the shaky impression he'd given in his debut year the season previous. The infamous ‘arm swing’ debate was fuelled by Kepa's attempts to generate power in his dives, and remained a talking point over the 2018/19 and 2019/20 campaigns.
The example that Dr John Harrison pointed to back in the winter of 2019 was less extreme than some of the other examples that had been pointed out in Kepa's game, but illustrated the issues that it posed.
Difficult moments in the Champions League against Ajax at Stamford Bridge and Valencia at the Mestalla were not outright ‘mistakes’, but nonetheless sowed seeds of doubt in the Spaniard's technical execution and, overarchingly, his confidence.
It wouldn't be long before Frank Lampard was calling for reinforcements.
Having deleted his social media accounts at the tail end of the 19/20 campaign due to worsening abuse online over his performances, the arrival of Edouard Mendy relegated the Spanish goalkeeper to the bench early in the 20/21 season. Mendy's signing had followed a high profile error at Anfield in Chelsea's second match of the season. It was characteristic of Kepa's inconsistency over the previous few years; mistakes that happen, but happened too often. He hadn't found his groove, and - at a very basic level of analysis - simply didn't seem to be showing real signs of significant improvement.
Kepa's numbers for the 2019/20 season didn't make for pretty reading, either. His poor shot- stopping record was apparent to all and the statistics painted a similar picture. Kepa conceded 0.32 more goals per match than would be expected if an average Premier League goalkeeper had faced the shots Kepa did, according to Goalkeeper xG statistics.
It was actually the worst shot-stopping performance of any Premier League goalkeeper in the last five years. Additionally, Kepa’s shot prevention was similarly poor as he allowed Chelsea to face an additional 0.11 expected goals per match more than would be expected if an average Premier League goalkeeper had faced the crosses and through balls that Kepa did. Adding in his distribution metrics, Kepa essentially was costing Chelsea a goal every two and a half games.
The following 2020/21 season was, overall, a successful one for the Blues. It saw Lampard's departure after a mixed start to the season, and Thomas Tuchel reformed Chelsea's identity as they began to push further towards a third Champions League final. But for Kepa, things had soured.
"It's a clear mistake that has cost us," said Lampard of Kepa to the BBC.
"We have to keep working, Kepa has to keep working and he has to have support around him, that's very clear. Individually players need support, particularly from myself, and I give that to all the players.
“And now we've got to try to give him confidence, because that's important. Nobody tries to make mistakes in football, that's the nature of the game.”
Edouard Mendy made his Chelsea debut nine days later.
The basic errors, lapses in concentration, and somewhat anxious playing style seemed to be the sole constant in Kepa's time at Chelsea between 2018 and 2020. Managers had come and gone - of very different styles - new defences had been formed in front of him, and several summers rose and fell. But it simply wasn't working.
Days after the Liverpool error, The Daily Mail's unsurprisingly shameless headline read 'Chelsea's £72m nightmare: Kepa's latest in a long line of clangers is yet more evidence they need a new goalkeeper... so with Frank Lampard desperate for a new man between the sticks, is he the worst Premier League signing EVER?'. It was a naturally ridiculous and characteristically elementary top line from the Mail, but was a good indicator of the attacks the press and public alike were now firing towards the Spaniard.
It didn't help that Chelsea's Champions League campaign and subsequent league form saw new number one Mendy grow in stature, and begin to mould himself into, arguably, one of the world's best in 2021.
As 2022 stepped into its stride, a strong cup run had led to a second Wembley Carabao Cup Final appearance for Kepa. Mendy started - and played well - but Tuchel wanted to mix things up before the penalty shootout. A 0-0 draw had played out over the ninety, and the game would always come down to the smallest of margins.
Having successfully substituted Kepa on in the 119th minute of the UEFA Super Cup Final in the summer of the 2021/22 season to don the gloves for the penalty finale, Tuchel's risk was a calculated one. After all, his Spanish goalkeeper had saved two decisive kicks against Villareal in the Super Cup Final and had recently broken Petr Cech's record for the most penalty saves in a Chelsea shirt (seven).
But it didn't work this time. Liverpool scored all eleven of their penalties at Wembley, with Kepa blazing his spot kick clear of the crossbar.
Shootouts are a lottery and Kepa's ‘luck’ had deserted him on this occasion. It brought back memories of the cameras focused on Kepa after Maurizio Sarri tried to take him off against Manchester City in the 2019 final.
“If you want to blame someone, blame me. I take the decisions and I don’t take them to be the hero” said the German manager after Chelsea's shootout defeat to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.
“We took the decision like we did last time in a penalty shootout because Kepa is training with the players on a daily basis and they know how good he is. He has simply more time on the training ground to do this than Edou, who plays a lot more”.
Nonetheless, Kepa returned to the bench for, predominantly, the rest of Tuchel's time at Chelsea.
And this brings us more or less to today, via a Tuchel sacking, a Potter appointment, and a World Cup.
Mendy's strong form over 2021 had led to FIFA handing him their Best Goalkeeper award, as well as finishing second only to Gianluigi Donnarumma in the 2021 Yashin Trophy. He had become the first African player to play in a Champions League final in 36 years when Chelsea beat Manchester City in Portugal, May 2021, as well as equalling (at the time) the record for clean sheets in a Champions League campaign (nine, with Santiago Cañizares in 2000/01 and Keylor Navas in 2015/16).
The first half of 2022 only strengthened this impression, but with Chelsea starting the 2022/23 season in mixed form, it would become fragile.
That summer, it had been confirmed that Kepa was ‘not happy about the situation’ and could leave Stamford Bridge. A loan move to Napoli was heavily touted but never materialised. A few weeks into the new season, Tuchel admitted that Kepa had tried to find a way out of the club that summer, though pointing to his professionalism and physical readiness as a sign of his willingness to play.
“I was always very clear directly with him that I would love him to stay" explained Tuchel. “My point of view is that he’s absolutely ready to play”.
And when he got his chance against Crystal Palace in October, under a new manager and on the back of an injury to Edouard Mendy, as well as a dip in form from the Senegalese goalkeeper, Kepa was ready to play.
Mendy returned from injury ahead of a trip away to Aston Villa at the end of October but remained on the bench, with Kepa retaining his starting spot. In that same match, Kepa pulled off a triple save that made waves with fans and pundits alike. He seemed rejuvenated, and not just in flashes. Instead, Kepa was putting in performances that, if making headlines, were only doing so for positive reasons.
The numbers back up the appearance of improved form, too. In fact, Kepa's form is not just better, but compared to his last full season as a number one (2019/20), it has hugely improved. Whereas, as mentioned previously, Kepa was costing Chelsea 2.5 goals per game in the 19/20 campaign, he is now saving them a goal every four games with a total +4.13 goals value for the season to date (up until the Leicester City fixture on the 11th).
The World Cup came and went, and Mendy, to date, still hasn't forced his way back into Chelsea's starting eleven. So what is it that has brought an upturn in Kepa's fortunes?
It's unlikely that external factors are the main determinant. Kepa has played in Chelsea sides with different tactical styles, and is generally comfortable playing out from the back or going more direct if need be. Kepa pointed to a ‘fresh start’ under Potter in September, but whether this was to do with the manager himself or just the general passage of time since his last major appearance is up for debate.
At the micro-level, Kepa still wears Adidas gloves and boots, as he did when he joined Chelsea. It may seem trivial, but goalkeepers out of form or looking for a fresh start will sometimes go for a change in tools. Kepa has remained true to his since 2018.
Likewise, to deem Kepa's upturn in form a product of changing circumstances is reductionist. As Tuchel noted earlier in the season, Kepa was ready. The mind-sticking match at Wembley against Liverpool was, as with many events in Kepa's Chelsea career, a tarnishing. A situation that went wrong at the worst time, and was subsequently blown up.
Kepa seems to be a goalkeeper playing with more freedom. Whether that's because of the assumption that Kepa is only holding Mendy off until his inevitable return to the team as the righteous number one, therefore becoming a ‘nothing to lose’ situation, is a possibility. Yet Potter seems fairly steadfast in his commitment to Kepa holding the number one shirt. And, though Chelsea are underperforming, their woes don't come from between the sticks.
Yes, there have been moments where Kepa has conceded weaker goals. The Athletic pointed to a concession from Karim Adeyemi in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund, where he was indecisive as to whether to rush and commit or hold nearer his line. However, this is overlooking the fact that Kepa kept the Germans at bay with a selection of strong saves. Oliver Skipp's goal in the Tottenham Hotspur-Chelsea tie was another pointed out as a ‘could have done more moment’ in the build up, making a somewhat unorthodox save from an original shot.
But these are hardly concerning or outright ‘mistakes’. Kepa has retained a strong trust in his reflex ability and athleticism, allowing him to afford to stick to his line and make saves. He won November's Save of the Month award for his triple threat stop at Villa Park, and was nominated for both January and February.
It's not like Kepa has suddenly just ‘become’ a good goalkeeper. The ability was always there, but was portrayed in flashes and often overshadowed by events or errors that cumulated in a snowball effect of his image.
The Spaniard still has two years left to run on his seven year deal, and therefore plenty of time left to permanently turn his image. The phrase ‘prove why he’s the world's most expensive goalkeeper' is entirely redundant. Players do not set their own transfer fees, and if Chelsea feel that, ultimately, they haven't got value for money, that lies at the feet of the powers that be. Not Kepa.
Kepa can only focus on one thing: his time on the grass. And, it seems that he is doing this to the utmost. More focused, more consistent, and seeming to be enjoying his time playing, Kepa has matured as a goalkeeper - but not lost the spark that helped him burst onto the scene.
The story of Kepa Arrizabalaga is one that, at points, seemed down and out. But with his restoration to the Chelsea starting line up and improving form, it seems that Kepa's Chelsea career is coming good. Two big years lie ahead of him to extend his time at the Bridge, or at least go out on a high.