Eighteen months later, the most expensive goalkeeper in the world will play his first Premier match without feeling that demotion, substitution, or worse will await him at the end of the evening. When Kepa Arrizabalaga jumps to the Etihad to face Manchester City, this Saturday at 12:00 in the Islands, one of the strangest periods in the history of goalkeeping will end and, who knows, another one will begin, almost as strange. Because in the hands of the Spanish goalkeeper, so many times repudiated by his fans, will remain part of Chelsea’s fragile destiny in this league that is in second place, 10 points behind City.
The departure of Edouard Mendy, the starter, with Senegal in the African Cup, gives the Spanish a reaffirmation space with all the traces of scoring a career. With the World Cup on the horizon, this is a critical moment. Nothing new, therefore, for this boy who left Ondarroa at the age of 23 after having cost 80 million euros, to successively go through a personal crisis, a sentimental crisis, a crisis with his coach, Frank Lampard, a global health crisis and a sports crisis from which he has emerged, apparently, with no more sequels than a couple of scars on the soul.
“Little by little, I lost confidence and ended up making some mistakes,” the player confessed in The Player’s Tribune, remembering his second season at Chelsea, when, after winning the Europa League, the new coach, Frank Lampard, made him a scapegoat for his incompetence, the most exposed face of a team that was disintegrating along all lines and only seemed to exhibit miseries in the figure of the desperate young goalkeeper.
When Thomas Tuchel took charge of the team a year ago, Kepa was a depressed substitute and Mendy an invigorated starter. The consideration of first archer was lost. But under the direction of the German coach, the Biscayan regained the professional respect that Lampard denied him. If the English coach ignored him, Tuchel dedicated more time to work, listened to him, offered solutions and showed his confidence. First, putting him in the semifinals and in the final of the Cup; and then giving him a place in the final of the European Super Cup against Villarreal, resolved in favor of the London club in the penalty shootout thanks to saves that did not seem like a coincidence. In the last year, Kepa has saved eight penalties in penalty shootouts. More than anyone in Chelsea history.
“He makes people miss penalties,” Marcus Belletti, Chelsea’s third goalkeeper, observed in The Athletic. “It’s scary! He loves penalties. I’ve never seen a goalie feel superior to the shooter in those situations. He feels favourite”.
Kepa seems ready to respond. At 27, he has grown older. Less arrogant, less impulsive, just as elastic in the face of attacks from opponents. His last performance, the League Cup semi-final tie against Tottenham, was successful. He was shot five times between the three suits: Sessegnon, Kane, Lo Celso, and Emerson Royal twice. He stopped them all. Chelsea qualified for the final with a record of 3-0.
A difficult gap to bridge
“I have never seen Kepa nervous, not for a single day,” Tuchel said last Tuesday, before the decisive match against Tottenham. “I have never seen him jealous or angry with his teammates. He is a great competitor. I have genuine trust in him. He is very calm, very focused because that is what he does every day. You don’t need to show what you can do in 90 minutes. He is absolutely ready.”
You will need to be prepared. This Saturday, Chelsea will face the highest scoring team in the Premier. According to Tuchel, the gap will be difficult to bridge.
“The biggest difference between us and City is that they managed the injuries and Covid cases better throughout this season,” the manager said. “When you have a full squad, you generate an energy and an atmosphere that allows you to push everyone to the limit, and that is the key to high competition,” said Tuchel, who lamented the absences of Chilwell, Reece and Christensen. “We don’t have that. Thats the reality. If you look at the standings, the consistency, the results, the gap between them and us is significant. Right now they are the reference of the Premier”.
The loss of Edouard Mendy does not count for Tuchel. Facing the biggest steamroller in English football, his right-hand man under the sticks is Kepa Arrizabalaga.