Kepa Arrizabalaga didn’t choose to be the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. That’s on us. He certainly didn’t choose to be the world’s most expensive backup goalkeeper either, though much of that is on him. Either way, that’s where we are and that’s what we’ve got to love, with Kepa thrust back into the limelight this month thanks to Édouard Mendy being away at the Africa Cup of Nations.
It’s tough to talk about Kepa objectively, thanks in part to all that, but also because goalkeeping is a mystical art to most, even to us self-fashioned football experts. (Of course, we’re all football experts.) That said, one of my favorite Twitter follows to help me understand the game better is @Jhdharrison1, who is, among other things, a freelance goalkeeper analyst. If nothing at all, his tweets provide quality food for thought.
Two key moments from Saturday’s 1-0 defeat popped on Harrison’s radar, the 1-v-1 save versus Jack Grealish and the conceded goal on Kevin De Bruyne’s long shot.
I think we can all agree that the first thing was a very good thing, and as Harrison points out, is actually a massive improvement to Kepa’s game this season. There are multiple techniques a goalkeeper can employ to try to save 1-v-1s, and Kepa’s been choosing the correct option with the correct timing lately, improving on what apparently had been the league’s worst record in such scenarios over his first three seasons at Chelsea.
There is one positive for #Chelsea & that is #Kepa’s vastly improved 1v1 record.— John Harrison (@Jhdharrison1) January 15, 2022
Before this season he had the worst 1v1 record of any GK in the #PremierLeague over the past 3 years but this year he’s been excellent 1v1.
Today he wonderfully executed the spread vs #Grealish! pic.twitter.com/t9gabuBf5x
So that’s great news.
Obviously, the not so great news is that later on he was beaten by yet another long shot, for the game’s only goal. Kepa’s tendency to concede long-range shots is well documented — another thing he leads the league in! — and De Bruyne did us in like that in 2017-18 as well, so there was always going to be a decent chance that this would happen in such a decisive manner once again.
De Bruyne’s rocket of a goal in 2017 this was not however (which came against Thibaut Courtois, incidentally, before he slithered off to Real Madrid and kickstarted his whole chain of goalkeeping drama). This goal was a curling ball well inside the far post, hit with much less power, much less accuracy, and almost as a last resort with no other progressive options available.
As Harrison’s analysis shows, and has shown repeatedly, Kepa’s poor footwork and pre-dive habits put him in less than ideal positions to make saves on such shots — and that’s before we consider his relative lack of height (only 6’1”: short for a goalkeeper, especially these days) or his subpar positioning on this play (out too far, and too far to his right).
Ideally initially he wouldn’t have gambled, & guessed KDB was going near post, & took the step to his right, but once he had done this he could’ve potentially rectified the situation by getting a quick power step left in before he dived in order to make it further across the goal pic.twitter.com/M8T2slFSoi— John Harrison (@Jhdharrison1) January 15, 2022
While some of this specific criticism strikes me as a bit harsh just because of the somewhat broken nature of the play — no one expected the improvised shot (not even Thiago Silva, who did not attempt to block it) after the ball got stuck under De Bruyne’s feet — it does unfortunately fit the pattern for Kepa. His initial step to the right, for example, maybe isn’t such a bad error, but as also pointed out by Rio Ferdinand (and Joleon Lescott), it does put him in a position where he’s covering the same area of the goal as his defenders while simultaneously making it harder to get back across to his left.
“This is coming back to communication. With goalkeepers and defenders you have a conversation before the game. If there’s someone coming into particular areas, we know you’re going to stand that side and I’ll cover the other. If you don’t have those conversations that’s where the confusion lies. You take steps to cheat a little bit and that’s where you get caught out.”
-Rio Ferdinand; source: BT Sport via Metro
So how much do we worry about this, and how do we account for this going forward?
This was only the sixth goal Kepa’s conceded in nine appearances, so that’s hardly the end of the world. The defense in front of him is much better than ever before, he’s seemingly got his groove back, and he’s also a wizard in shootouts. His overall record this season, in somewhat limited appearances, has been far better than his record for Chelsea up to this point, which made (and still make) him our only first-choice goalkeeper in the 21st century (i.e. De Goey, Cudicini, Čech, Courtois, Kepa, Mendy) to concede more goals than games played. Mendy’s record (by far the lowest goals/game conceded at 0.686 and highest clean sheet ratio at 0.529 of any goalkeeper in Chelsea history with at least 10 appearances) make Kepa’s numbers look even worse. But Mendy’s not here right now, so that’s not something that we can really consider at the moment.
The obvious answer is that we simply need to keep playing good defense — which, it should be said, we did on Saturday — cut out silly and cheap turnovers especially in the defensive third, and, perhaps most crucially ... score some goals! As Tuchel lamented, we had plenty of opportunities that were wasted by poor decision-making in attack — and this isn’t all on Lukaku either — any one of which would’ve changed the game-state and would’ve led to this game playing out much differently. You can’t win if you don’t score, it’s as simple as that. We weren’t played off the park by any means, their difference-makers just made a bigger difference in the end than ours. (And obviously, the title wasn’t lost in this game; it was lost with all the draws.)