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Solving Chelsea’s Kepa conundrum, Part 1 — The Problem

An in-depth analysis of Kepa Arrizabalaga

Alex Grimm/Getty Images

On August 8th 2018, Chelsea sent shockwaves around the footballing world by triggering the €80 million release clause of Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. While there was a general consensus that Kepa was a truly talented goalkeeper with a bright future, the world record fee had raised many eyebrows, even within the fanbase of his previous club, while dividing social media into vocal pro-Kepa and anti-Kepa camps. With solid arguments on both sides, those debates have continued to this day.

In all fairness, the complexity of Chelsea’s goalkeeping scenario cannot be addressed in just one article. There are several questions involved — a wide variety of whos, whys, whats and hows. The aim of this first part is to track his journey from his last season at Bilbao to his current standing at Chelsea. The objective of the second article will be to suggest a long-term solution that satisfies every party involved. Statistics will be provided with context wherever possible in order to offer a comprehensive view into different aspects of Kepa’s game. At the end, the final decision will be left with the reader.

Chelsea Unveil New Signing Kepa Arrizabalaga Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Chelsea, as one of the biggest clubs on the planet, deserve and need a goalkeeper who ranks among the very best in the business. The simplest way of finding out whether Kepa is worthy of that tag is by comparing him to other goalkeepers in an objective manner. To that end, the league performance of 117 goalkeepers, including Kepa, in the 2019-20 season has been analyzed. The performances of Kepa in the 2018-19 and 2017-18 seasons have also been included in the study in order to better understand his evolution across the years. Goalkeepers were selected based on two conditions: they must currently play in the top 5 leagues and must have played at least 540 minutes. The second reason was implemented in order to ensure all the goalkeepers in the study have a reasonably large sample size.

Analysis of the goalkeepers was done by watching their performances in order to note strengths and weaknesses, backed up by their statistical standing among other goalkeepers. It must be noted that cross-collection and passing numbers are the result of a combination of the goalkeeper’s quality and the team’s tactics. The likes of Alisson and Jan Oblak might not have very high cross-collection numbers simply because they are not required to. The defenders in front of them are good enough to deal with aerial balls and do not require the goalkeeper’s assistance in this regard. It does not mean these goalkeepers are poor in the air.

The data was taken from the wonderful fbref.com who are doing a remarkable job in providing detailed statistics to football fans free of cost. Readers are advised to watch the goalkeepers, if their schedules allow it, before forming their own judgements!


The Bilbao Days

After a string of loan spells, the 2017-18 season offered Kepa the chance to cement a first team spot in his childhood club. It is fair to say his performances caught the eye of many over the course of the season, with Real Madrid almost signing him for a fee of €20 million before manager Zinedine Zidane vetoed the deal at the last minute.

However, looking back, it is clear to see that Kepa was not a particularly good shot stopper at Bilbao. His shot-stopping numbers were worse than that of the average goalkeeper even though he was facing reasonably easy shots.

On the other hand, his cross collection numbers are worth mentioning. For a goalkeeper who is not overly tall, he put up commendable numbers both in terms of the volume of crosses collected and in terms of efficiency. In comparison to the goalkeepers in the top 5 leagues in 2019-20, the 2017-18 version of Kepa was an above average cross collector. The signs of his excellent ball-playing ability were also visible at Bilbao, especially over longer distances.

The graph picture shows Kepa’s standing among other La Liga goalkeepers in the 2017-18 season from a shot-stopping perspective. Kepa was a net negative contributor when it came to shot-stopping, that is, he cost more goals than he saved goals. However, at his age, it is common for goalkeepers to have rocky seasons and as such, he was still viewed as a highly promising prospect due to other aspects of his skillset.

In terms of goalkeeping technique, Kepa does not seem to have made many changes compared to his performances in Bilbao.

At present, two of Kepa’s biggest flaws are 1v1 scenarios and positioning, and these issues were also visible during his time in Spain. In the GIF below, Kepa is turned too square towards the player in the wide position. While it does theoretically hold an advantage in preventing near post goals, it also means he is often caught unprepared during cutbacks. This is a recurring theme, as we will see later.

When it comes to 1v1 scenarios, Kepa is prone to indecisiveness. This means he is often caught in two minds and never fully commits to rushing out to deter the attacker.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to dealing with 1v1s as a goalkeeper: either staying close to the line or rushing out and harrying the striker. While both have their own benefits and disadvantages, Kepa often does neither and is caught somewhere between both. This means the attacker firmly has the advantage when it comes to these scenarios.


The world’s most expensive goalkeeper

Kepa had big boots to fill right from day 1, with his predecessor Thibaut Courtois leaving the club with a match-winning performance in the FA Cup final and as a Golden Glove winner in the 2018 World Cup. Combined with his price tag, this meant there was huge pressure on his shoulders from day 1.

While many would have crumbled under the scrutiny and reverted into their shells, Kepa did a great job at meeting the pressure face on. This meant carrying himself with swagger in the dressing room, although this did turn into arrogance at times, as pointed out by former teammate Rob Green. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a healthy dose of arrogance is good for most goalkeepers. The old saying “you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper” exists with fair reason, after all. In the mental aspect of things, Kepa did a better job than most would have at dealing with the pressure.

“As a person he’s a really nice lad, and he’s got a fantastic attitude. He does have this side of him which is arrogant, or certainly very confident in his own ability. It’s that fine line and he has that. He carries the fact that he is the most expensive keeper in the world with him.”

-Rob Green; January 2020

However, Kepa’s performances on the pitch did not mirror his chutzpah and confidence off the pitch.

While he has been analyzed and criticized at length this season, his shot-stopping last season was actually even worse! This is because he faced much easier shots under Maurizio Sarri than under Frank Lampard. Despite the easier shots, his shot -topping was still subpar and his cross-collection also suffered in a more physical league.

As seen below, he ranked low in both shot-stopping and cross-collection last season among Premier League goalkeepers. He did (rightly) receive some leeway due to his age and the fact that he was in his first season at a truly big club. Moreover, his passing deserves specific attention. His ability on the ball truly suited Sarri’s philosophy to a tee, with his ability to pass the ball competently over medium and long ranges particularly useful in evading pressure.

While his heroics in the Europa League were praised, especially after the penalty shootout against Eintracht Frankfurt, it is worth noting that he was not statistically much better in that competition. Kepa ranked 35th out of 53 goalkeepers in the Europa League last season, with a net contribution of -0.23 goals saved/90. His cross-collection numbers in continental football were dramatically better, however.

Despite the incident with Sarri at the end of the League Cup final, his flashes of potential and his age meant fans were largely satisfied with the purchase. His performance against Fulham in particular displayed the promise he had, and meant that fans were able to look forward to his progression into a truly top goalkeeper.

From a technical perspective, his game still had deficiencies previously noted.

One of his first games for the club, against Arsenal, laid bare his inability to deal with shots resulting from cut backs. One miss from Aubameyang can be used to summarize his problem.

Bellerin had the ball in a wide-right position, prompting Kepa to fully shift his body in anticipation of a shot. However, Kepa failed to account for the possibility of a cutback. Bellerin promptly cut the ball back to Aubameyang to create a high quality chance. Fortunately, the chance was missed and Chelsea went on to the win game 3-2.

This issue was not just limited to one flank, as seen by Mkhitaryan’s miss in the same game. The chance originated from Arsenal’s left flank and further demonstrated Kepa’s proneness to over-committing while protecting the goal from wide players.

Another technical issue that arose during the 2018-19 season was Kepa’s tendency to swing his arms before saving. While this can be useful in generating momentum and strength while saving shots, it is crucial to execute this movement perfectly. Anything less than absolute perfection will result in slower reactions and consequently, goals conceded.

This is the issue that many refer to as “weak wrists”. However, Kepa’s tendency to get his hands to shots but not stop them has more to do with wrong movements before a shot rather than any inherent physical weakness.

The most visible example of this is City’s fourth goal in the 6-0 win against Chelsea.

Gundogan’s shot, by all means, was not unstoppable and fans have the right to expect most keepers to keep shots like that out. However, Kepa’s initial swing meant he lost a valuable few milliseconds and as a result conceded a goal even though he got his fingertips to the ball.

Another goal similar to this was Mkhitaryan’s goal in the 3-2 win against Arsenal.

An example of this issue in a dead-ball context is Sergio Agüero’s penalty in the League Cup final. Kepa did well to guess the right way and get his hands to the ball. However, his misjudged movement before the shot meant he was always a second behind the shot. Chelsea went on to lose the shootout.

This movement can be effective, as seen in the shootouts against Frankfurt and Tottenham, but the probability of failure is significantly higher than the probability of success. It is a surprise to see a top level goalkeeper adopt such a strategy.

The swing is also the reason why most normal shots appear unsaveable when Kepa is in goal, and why most normal saves appear to be show-stoppers.


The Lampard Era

Kepa began the 2019-20 season in a rather mixed manner. A shambolic display, both on an individual and a team level, in the 4-0 defeat to United was followed by a spirited performance against Liverpool in the Super Cup.

In the first 120 minutes, Kepa was absolutely superb, stopping many difficult shots and performing on a generally high level. However, his problems with swinging his arms returned during the penalty shootout, resulting in a rather meek individual display. Origi’s penalty in particular was saveable and both fans and players would have looked back on that moment as the one where Chelsea lost the trophy.

It is difficult not to sympathize with Kepa due to the difficulty of shots he has faced this season. The general inexperience of the playing and coaching personnel has resulted in the team conceding many high quality chances.

However, even accounting for these factors, Kepa’s performance has been underwhelming. Kepa, once again, has been a net negative contributor when it comes to shot-stopping and a decent contributor in terms on cross-collection. The two charts below show his relative standing this season when compared to other Premier League goalkeepers.

But his dwindling confidence is also affecting his cross-collection. This is reflected in the increased number of set-piece chances Chelsea are conceding this season.

Kepa’s tendency to stay rooted to his line instead of collecting crosses puts more pressure on his defenders and creates unwanted chaos in the box. This is best seen in the goal scored by Newcastle at St. James’ Park, starting with a simple ball from a free-kick.

Kepa’s reluctance to come off his line resulted in Antonio Rüdiger facing a rather unnecessary 1v1 scenario and losing out, resulting a goal. This is not to say that Rüdiger was blameless in the scenario. He did not cover himself in glory and should have won the aerial duel. However, if Kepa had come out for the cross, such a situation would have never arose.

Another issue that has crept into Kepa’s game this season is a tendency to dive backwards rather than forwards.

Conventional common sense says diving forward to meet the ball rather than moving away from it results in a better chance of stopping the ball.

This and his indecisiveness in 1v1 scenarios were both on show in the 2-2 draw against Arsenal, in a display that must rank amongst his worst for the club.

As his performances on the pitch have waned, rumours of bad attitude in training have risen in frequency, which both player and head coach have denied. Either way, that’s not a good look for him, though it must be kept in mind that he is, after all, a young man with enormous pressure on his shoulders. It is completely natural for him to retreat into a shell of self-defense.

He was justifiably dropped in February after a string of poor performances but showed enormous character to bounce back in the victories against Liverpool and Everton. While his deficiencies haven’t been suddenly and completely fixed, the performances were certainly small steps on the right track.

Chelsea v Everton - English Premier League Photo by Jacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Conclusion

At this juncture, it is crucial to take a swift but pragmatic decision about Kepa.

Selling Kepa at this point is not an economically feasible option. In solely FFP terms, Kepa must be sold for at least £50 million in order to break even. In a market ravaged by the coronavirus crisis, it is quite simply impossible to extract that fee from any sale. His £190,000 per week wages mean it is not easy to loan him to a smaller club either. There are only a select few clubs who can afford Kepa and it is highly unlikely they spend big money on an underperforming goalkeeper.

Keeping this in mind, Kepa will stay at the club in all likelihood.

With Willy Caballero (38) set to leave at the end of the campaign, Chelsea will be looking for a new goalkeeper in the market regardless of Kepa’s future. The question is, what kind of profile should the club be pursuing? Should Chelsea be aiming to purchase an older veteran who can mentor Kepa or should we be aiming for a younger option to offer Kepa some intense competition? The options linked to Chelsea will be analyzed in Part 2, with the strengths and weaknesses of different goalkeepers looked at in detail.

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