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Kepa the change: Panic with a purpose?

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Trying to make sense of Chelsea’s goalkeeping machinations and the new norms that caused them. And: Courtois is undoubtedly a top five goalkeeper, but whether that’s top five in the world or just in the Premier League makes all the difference.

Chelsea Unveil New Signing Kepa Arrizabalaga Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images

Kepa Arrizabalaga (Kepa, from now on) appears to be a promising goalkeeper with potential to be a great shot stopper for Chelsea. I say “appears” because, like most Chelsea fans, I have no clue if he’s good or not. Chelsea nevertheless paid a world record €80m for him to be the man between the sticks for the next ten years (for real this time). This raises the question: how does a keeper who was hardly known outside Spain become the most expensive in the world?

There are several answers that come to mind: timing, panic, poor planning, Courtois, TV deals, and smarts. That’s right, smarts... Maybe. Let’s dig in.

The Cost of Courtois

To first understand the Price of Kepa, we must first understand the Cost of Courtois. We all know the story: as a well-regarded teenager, Thibaut Courtois was purchased by Chelsea from Genk for £7.9m in 2011, was loaned to Atletico Madrid for three years, then returned to Chelsea to dethrone Chelsea legend Petr Čech. To do all that in a career is impressive; to do it by 23 is the work of a star. Now, at 26, he has forced his way to Real Madrid for £35m, a bargain in today’s market. All signs point to Courtois being at the very top of his game, having just been awarded the World Cup Golden Glove.

Why, then, is Chelsea Twitter rejoicing at his loss? And why is there so much use of the snake emoji?

One theory is that Chelsea fans are volatile, ungrateful, and delusional. This argument is summed up here (taking random Tweets to show that people have opinions is obviously bad practice, but I think it’s warranted here):

In other words, Chelsea fans are doing the classic “I’m not fired, I quit” move.

In this world, Courtois is one of the five best goalies in the world. Evidence: he has won Golden Gloves in two countries and the World Cup, has appeared in teams of the seasons all over the globe. Here’s some more:

I’m not entirely familiar with the inner workings of Goalimpact, but the model attempts to assign credit to individuals for team outcomes. By Goalimpact, Courtois has the best rating of any player in the world. That’s right, not just any goalie, but the best of any position.

Clearly, if Courtois is far-and-away the best goalie in the world, they would have been better off holding him ransom and offering him £400k per week to stay.

They didn’t.

So let’s look at the other side of the Twitter celebration at the sale of Chelsea’s starting keeper. What if Courtois is only, like, a top five goalie in the Premier League? Let’s look for some evidence of this.

Evidence A: third best in Premier League?

That still him as third, though, and 7th in the world. Kepa is notably missing. Let’s look elsewhere.

Evidence B: not looking so hot

Expected goals (xG) use for goalkeeper analysis is still controversial in the stats community (so-called “post-shot xG” is preferred if anything). Without getting too into the weeds on it, let’s just agree that this is just one very imperfect piece of information. However, it makes quite a statement. By this metric, Courtois was worse than de Gea (to be expected), Ederson (Man City were an outlier, after all), Lloris (won the World Cup, that’s fine), and Karius (uh oh). Similar studies place him behind even Čech (awkward), and Mignolet (uh oh x2).

I think you get the point. If Courtois is simply a good Premier League goalie, and not one of the best two or three in the world, then selling him off for a year of Kovačić and a 50 per cent down payment on the Next Big Thing™ isn’t so bad.

Of course, there are other reasons that the Cost of Courtois is so high. The sale of Courtois doesn’t just represent the loss of an investment. It also represents the end of an era. Obviously, the trade back in 2015 for Courtois over Čech was painful. But the logic was all there: we are trading away our declining club legend for the man who could surpass him. Not so much. Mark Worrall touches on the tarnishing of that legacy over at ESPN.

But it’s also the end of a different era. Courtois was a product of Emenalo’s Loan Army strategy. We would find the world’s most talented 19-year-olds, loan them, then either play them or make huge profits. The strategy was obviously a huge success, since Chelsea now have a world class striker in Lukaku getting teed up by Messi-esque Salah and the Pink Mamba himself, Kevin De Bruyne. And the whole group is backstopped by Courtois, La Liga legend.

...hmmm...

Now Emenalo is gone and a lack of patience and loyalty has led to huge losses from the talent pool we had once amassed. Courtois forcing his way out is just the bloody end of a messy process.

The Price of a Kepa

Enough of THE SNAKE. What do we make of Chelsea’s (short) new goalie? More specifically, what about his price? There are two main theories here. The first is this:

In other words, strikers score goals and midfielders create them, and goals win games. Goalies are bystanders in big teams most of the time, and don’t make nearly the same difference. Goals conceded, after all, is more a function of style, system, and circumstance than the individuals involved. For the sake of this post, we’ll refer to this as the Traditional Argument.

Here’s the alternative:

Let’s call this the Newfangled Argument. In this view, just because goalies have historically been cheap doesn’t mean that’s really the most accurate way to view them. They are, in fact, undervalued because football has both attacking and defending phases. You can read more about both sides of the argument at The Economist.

Both sides have traditional supporters and “stats nerd” supporters. However, it would appear that some ground is being given to the Newfangled crowd with the recent massive purchases of Allison (a one-season wonder, even though he will likely continue to be good) and Kepa.

There’s a small issue, though: they broke the record that had stood since 2001. Is there other reason to suggest that we’re in a new era? Possibly. Leno is one of the five or so most expensive goalies ever now (2018), Pickford’s sale from last year is up there (2017) and he was rumored to be at least twice as expensive in 2018. Similarly, Ederson also went for a large fee.

However, the bubble might be bursting. The Top 6 all have their goalies now (Ederson, De Gea, Allison, Lloris, Kepa, Leno). Madrid now appear set, as do Barcelona and Bayern. Who is left to spend a billion dollars on a keeper? So while it might be smart to spend bigger than used to be acceptable, Chelsea are likely going to hold the dubious distinction of having spent a world record fee for a goalie for quite a long time. With any luck, it will at least be on a top five keeper.

But is that going to be top five in the Premier League, or top five in the world?