Is it time everyone forgives Kepa Arizabalaga?
Background photo: Brian Minkoff, CC-BY-SA 3.0.
How the calm and harmless-looking Kepa Arrizabalaga manages to make headlines for the wrong reasons is quite bewildering, to say the least. Is he easy on the eye but difficult to deal with, or are we misjudging again? We’re all outsiders anyway, so the focus here is on whether the Basque should be looked at with compassion now, and pulled out of the mire.
During his time in La Liga, Arrizabalaga never really caused a sensation beyond the borders of the Basque Country. Under the radar except to scouts in West London. Playing for his modest boyhood club, Athletic Bilbao, Kepa never really stormed the limelight. He did win the European under-19 Championship as Spain’s first-choice keeper, but titles [individual and collective] defied him at the highest level. For the Zamora trophy [an award given to the best goalie in Spain], Kepa might’ve never considered winning it.
That’s why it surprised everyone when Chelsea went all out to pay the ridiculous £71.6 million required to release Kepa from Athletic Club in 2018. It’s cliché to say he remains the world’s most expensive goalie.
Contrast with De Gea
For his gymnastic heroics for Manchester United, David de Gea is regarded by many to be the best goalie in the world. Still, his meteoric rise to prominence wasn’t without some rough curves. Errors cluttered his game, particularly during his debut season at Manchester United. At some point, Sir Alex Ferguson just couldn’t stomach them anymore and dropped the Spaniard. United’s second choice keeper Anders Lindegaard was given the nod until he succumbed to injury.
In contrast, Kepa had a decent first season [2018/19] with Chelsea. He kept 23 shutouts in all competitions, eight of which came in the Europa League which Chelsea won. It was enough to have him usurp De Gea as Spain’s first choice.
However, some nonchalance during the Carabao Cup final, where Kepa refused to be substituted, cast aspersions on his civility. Punishment for his repellent reaction was an ignoble one game on the bench.
So, a reasonably good start to life in the Premier League with a slight hiccup sandwiched between, Kepa’s hopes must’ve been soaring for the coming campaign. But 2019/20 has hitherto been a period of a rude awakening. He’s been making strings of uncharacteristic gaffes. The stats don’t tell a pleasant story. The 25-year-old has a save percentage of 55 and has allowed 32 goals from his 24 games this term.
It’s pretty obvious how Frank Lampard’s hands were forced and why Kepa has been dropped for Chelsea last two league games.
After dropping Kepa - the world's most expensive goalkeeper - in recent weeks, Frank Lampard has said he does not pick players for his Chelsea team based on their price tag. https://t.co/LzbUavLymr
Who’s really suffering?
The thing is, Chelsea isn’t doing any better with their multi-million-pound keeper sulking on the bench. And Willy Caballero doesn’t look like he’s putting in enough to earn that number one spot. Not without howlers, the Argentine has let in four goals in the two games he’s featured, and the Blues have picked up a miserly point from six available.
It would be a different discussion if Chelsea had a worthy stop-gap replacement for Kepa. They don’t. Let’s lay it bare. Caballero is 38. He looks match-rusty. And obviously lacks the sharpness to produce spectacular saves between the sticks. It’s not crystal yet, but the Blues have started paying for the decision to teach Kepa a thing or two about raising his game while sitting on the bench.
With a crunch tie against Tottenham Hotspur next and a more difficult Champions League match against Bayern Munich on the horizon, it’s time to stop punishing Kepa at Chelsea’s expense.
If a keeper was ever too expensive to be the second choice, Kepa is. The buck shouldn’t stop at Kepa’s table. Chelsea’s lacklustre defence should also come in for questioning. And what metrics are used for accessing the performance of Henrique Hilario and the rest of the goalkeeper trainers’ team at Chelsea?
Kepa Arrizabalaga hasn’t been in top-notch form this campaign, but two games without him already seem like too much punishment for both club and player.