Thomas Tuchel’s Midas touch has created yet another moment that will likely live in Chelsea lore for a long time.
As extra-time in the UEFA Super Cup ebbed away with the teams deadlocked at 1-1, one Kepa Arrizabalaga started limbering up on the substitutes bench, getting some stretches in, putting on his gloves, looking every bit like the player next to enter the game with our sixth and final substitution of the evening. And sure enough, just before the clock struck 120, the backup goalkeeper’s number went up on the board in green, next to Édouard Mendy’s in red. Mendy had made several great saves during the match, but would not take part in the penalty shootout.
Was this just a random homage to Louis van Gaal and Tim Krul at the 2014 World Cup? Of course not. It was a plan six months in the making, as Thomas Tuchel revealed after Kepa saved twice to secure the Cup for Chelsea.
“When we arrived in my first cup game against Barnsley [in mid-February], we had this talk with the goalkeeping coaches and the analysis department who came up with these statistics that Willy Caballero is the best in penalty saving from thousands of them, second best was Kepa and third best is Edou in this statistic.
“Willy is not here anymore in the three [but] we spoke to the goalkeepers openly that it can be like this in a situation like today that we take this change, not for personal reasons, but to help the team’s chances because we have this statistic. [...] This is not a feeling and just a sudden idea of the manager.
“This was planned and openly discussed with the goalkeepers and I am very happy that they showed this team spirit that Edou was fine to take this for the team. You still need luck but everyone knows how it is. Thanks to the support and luck, Kepa could show and prove his quality.”
-Thomas Tuchel; source: Football.London
When decisions and plans are clearly communicated, you reduce the chances of hurt feelings.
Édouard Mendy, who took over from Kepa as the first-choice goalkeeper at the start of last season and continues to put in consistently excellent performances, confirmed as much in his post-match interview as well.
“We work for this success. I knew since last season that if Kepa came on the pitch he would help the team like he did. I am really happy for Kepa.
“This is teamwork, it’s a team effort. When you play for Chelsea you play for success, you play for titles. We did it together and we are happy.”
-Édouard Mendy; source: Chelsea FC
Adding to the sense of irony but very much also the sense of redemption, Kepa was already involved once in a memorable goalkeeper substitution moment, though not one that gets reminisced about fondly. Kepa’s “mutiny” in the League Cup final, ahead of that penalty shootout didn’t lead to Chelsea winning that trophy (though Kepa did save one penalty then, too, just as he’s done in almost every penalty shootout in his Chelsea career), but this time, fortune smiled upon the World’s Most Expensive™ goalkeeper.
You do make your own luck, as the winning saying goes, and Kepa was indeed ready to be the hero when called upon — in fact, the TV cameras had picked up on some activity from him at beginning of extra-time, even, as he started to get ready for this potential opportunity. What looked inconsequential at the time proved to make the ultimate difference.
“It’s not a typical situation. I was ready because I knew this could happen, and I tried to be ready mentally and physically when we arrived at penalties.
“Edou did a fantastic job before, it was a tough, tough game against a very difficult team. We won and we are so happy. All the team did a fantastic job and we have the medal.”
-Kepa Arrizabalaga; source: Chelsea FC
Plan. Execute. Progress.
Another trophy in the cabinet, another memorable night, another long season under way. The journey ahead will be tough, dangerous, and probably very dramatic. But we’re off to a great start, as Tuchel’s tactics and decisions, the player’s execution and determination, and the goalkeepers’ union combine to keep feeding our trophy addiction.