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Solving Chelsea’s Kepa conundrum, Part 2 — The Solution

An in-depth analysis of potential replacement goalkeepers linked to Chelsea

Ajax v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images

In part 1, we looked at Kepa Arrizabalaga’s strong suits and shortcomings in order to fully understand the type of goalkeeper he is. While his talents are not in doubt, neither is the fact Chelsea need another goalkeeper in order to maintain the high standards that have been set by his predecessors.

In part 2, we will look at some of the various replacements — their strengths, weaknesses, prospects, concerns, economic viability — who have been proposed by pundits, analysts, and the rumor mill. They range from one of the best goalkeepers in Champions League football over the past two seasons to Premier League veterans who have experienced everything the English footballing pyramid has to offer.


André Onana

Chelsea have been extensively linked to the Ajax goalkeeper and looking at the stats, it is no surprise. While domestic league stats for Onana are not available, his sample size in the Champions League is large enough for us to make reasonable conclusions about his game.

Strengths

The first thing that stands out about Onana is his efficiency. He makes some very difficult saves look easy because of his positioning. The biggest example from a Chelsea context is the manner in which he saved Batshuayi’s shot in the 4-4 draw earlier this season.

For most goalkeepers, the shot location and speed would have made that impossible to stop. However, Onana’s expert positioning meant he was one step ahead of Batshuayi and made an extremely tough save with ease.

Onana’s pair of saves against Lewandowski in the previous season’s Champions League group stage game against Bayern are further examples of his phenomenal shot-stopping.

While most Chelsea fans might have concerns about a goalkeeper who conceded four goals against Chelsea, it is worth noting that Chelsea had an expected-goals number of almost six in that game, which means that Onana actually out-performed the expected outcome.

His cross-collection numbers are also highly encouraging, with his active nature off the line helping him rank among the premier cross collectors in this study.

He’s reportedly a very motivated and driven character as well, something that will no doubt appeal to Lampard who wants to build a dressing room filled with serious players.

Improvement needed

Onana is an archetypal sweeper-keeper and this means there is always a degree of risk involved in his game. As the likes of Ederson and Alisson have shown, a mishap while passing or rushing off his line is likely to occur at least a couple of times every season.

The question of whether these errors are deal-breakers depends entirely on personal preference. Some might want a more “secure” goalkeeper who offers less with the ball, while some might be prepared to accept the eccentricities of sweeper-keepers for their abilities elsewhere.

There is also the question of adapting to a more intense league, although Onana’s performances in the Champions League suggest that will not be an issue.

Getty Images

Misplaced concerns

While Onana’s ability on the ball seems poor statistically, it is important to keep in mind that Ajax typically have had shorter forwards than other teams. Long passes towards the likes of Dušan Tadić and Hakim Ziyech are less likely to be successful than long balls towards the likes of Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham. After all, it is impossible for a goalkeeper to play for Ajax without being exceptional on the ball.

Economic viability

The biggest deterrent towards any deal for Onana is the money involved. Ajax have reportedly placed a £35 million price tag the 24-year-old and while this may not seem like a high price, it would still rank among the five highest fees ever paid for a goalkeeper.

Onana’s quality might be worth the rumoured price tag in isolation, but it does not make financial sense. Chelsea already have a big-money goalkeeper on the books who’s struggling to perform; signing another expensive goalkeeper is simply not practical in these circumstances. While some creative accounting might help, a deal does not look likely at the moment.


Nick Pope

To fully understand Nick Pope, we must look at both his 2017-18 and 2019-20 campaigns. Pope’s individual season in 2017-18 ranks among the best ever in terms of both shot-stopping and cross-collection. While Burnley’s system helped, goalkeepers do not put up numbers like that without being inherently very good.

Pope was expected to use that season as a spring-board to launch his career to greater heights but saw his 2018-19 season cruelly curtailed by a freak shoulder injury. However, he has managed to bounce back excellently this season and has justified Burnley’s decision to keep faith in him and sell club stalwart Tom Heaton.

Strengths

The most impressive aspect about Pope is his technique. He is perhaps the biggest exponent of the “gorilla” or “A-frame” technique, resulting in a great starting position and an even distribution of his weight. This has been explained in fantastic detail by The Athletic.

His body shape and the positioning of his hands and feet before every shot are near-perfect. This is the reason why most of his saves look extremely easy even though they are not.

His starting position means he is almost never required to cover large distances to make saves. Most of his saves involve very minimal movement after the ball has been shot. The bulk of his work comes before the shot and this is where he is different from the other goalkeepers linked to Chelsea.

While British players, especially from smaller clubs, are often dismissed as unintelligent and overly reliant on physical traits, Pope couldn’t be further away from that stereotype.

His attitude has also been praised throughout his career, being labelled a very focused and serious player everywhere he has been. Conventional footballing wisdom requires the goalkeeper to be one of the dressing room leaders and a standard-setter. In this regard, Pope does not have any issues.

Improvement needed

Pope’s height means he is naturally vulnerable to shots that are driven low. This is an issue associated with most tall goalkeepers, with Thibaut Courtois a most prominent example. However, this can be improved and is not a deal-breaker by any means. At this point, it is fair to expect Pope to improve in this regard with better coaching and teammates.

His kicking and passing are also concerns, in both eye tests and statistics. Whether he can become good enough on the ball for a team that seeks to dominate possession remains to be seen.

FBL-ENG-PR-BURNLEY-CHELSEA Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

Misplaced concerns

It cannot be denied that Pope has had a poor season in terms of shot-stopping. This has been used as a red flag warning against any deal for Pope, and truth be told, Chelsea might be wise to heed that.

However, it is also important to apply some context to these numbers. Coming off of a major injury, Pope has taken longer to recover. But since the game against Chelsea in January, Pope has been in inspired form and has been a major reason behind Burnley’s resurgence. His game-changing displays against Leicester, Arsenal and Manchester United have shown the best of him, with his shot-stopping and cross-collection worth plenty of points to Burnley. He was on a steep upward curve and there is no reason to believe why it would not continue.

Economic viability

Pope should be cheaper than Onana in terms of both transfer fee and wages. It is fair to anticipate Burnley demanding a in the region of £20-25 million, a fair reflection of his qualities.


Juan Musso

Musso is a late bloomer and has actually not played a lot of football for his age. Despite being 26 years old, he has merely three full seasons under his belt, one of which came in Argentina. The lack of Champions League pedigree to offset this lack of experience is also a concern. This makes any judgement of his abilities slightly risky and makes it difficult to assess his real ceiling.

Strengths

Musso is a real all-rounder, offering a bit of everything you would want from a goalkeeper. He is an above average shot-stopper, excellent at cross-collection and also a distinguished passer. His game does not have a real standout weakness at this point, that is not something that can be said of many goalkeepers.

AC Milan v Udinese - Italian Serie A Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

Concerns

When compared to someone like Onana or Pope, Musso’s shot stopping seems more dependent on his athleticism rather than his technique and it is not easy to predict if this can be translated across leagues.

While not all players need a large sample size to be judged, performances in said time-frame need to be outstanding in order to arrive at justifiable conclusions. Musso’s performances, while being very good, might not necessarily fit that tag.

Economic viability

A price tag of £25 million has been suggested by the Italian media for the Udinese goalkeeper and this would be very steep at this point in time. Due to his age, relative lack of pedigree and the prices suggested, Musso would be the riskiest buy among the options linked to Chelsea so far.


Aaron Ramsdale

Ramsdale has done a great job in his first season in the Premier League, especially when considering the fact that he spent the previous season in League One. He has turned one of Bournemouth’s problem positions into a position of real strength, and stands as a testament to the club’s excellent coaching.

Strengths

His shot-stopping is by far his best attribute at the moment and has earned Bournemouth several points. He was thoroughly outstanding in both games against Chelsea, with his save off Emerson in the first game a particular standout.

Another example of his outstanding reflexes is his near-save of Alonso’s equalizer in the second game. It took a truly exceptional effort to regain his position so quickly after parrying Pedro’s shot.

In the context of the whole season, he is a net positive shot-stopper despite facing shots that are on the tougher side. His shot-stopping prowess is commendable and has plenty of upside in the long-run.

Improvement needed

While his shot-stopping deserves plenty of praise, this is not to suggest he is ready for a club of Chelsea’s magnitude. Several aspects of his game require polishing before he can take the step up.

His tendency to come out for crosses stands out as one aspect where he can improve a lot. His passing also requires a lot of work. This is, of course, nothing unusually wrong. He is only 22 and this is a part of his natural growth curve. He is shaping up to be a great option if the Chelsea need a goalkeeper in the summer of 2021.

Economic viability

Like Pope, his market price lies in the £20-25 million range. Whether he is good enough to justify that price immediately is another question.


Dean Henderson

Henderson has been among the five best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season. He has done a great job shielding the Sheffield United goal and has been a big reason behind their surprise rise to the top half of the table.

Strengths

Henderson is putting up great shot-stopping numbers despite facing difficult shots. His ability to deal with tougher shots is an admirable trait and one that big clubs will be paying attention to.

His biggest positive is his positioning when the ball is in the penalty box. Unlike Kepa, when the ball is in wider areas, Henderson positions himself in such a way that he is equally prepared to deal both with the near post shot and with the pass into central zones.

While he is not a sweeper-keeper like Ederson, he is proactive when the ball is played into the six-yard box. This helps him defuse many potentially costly scenarios although it does carry with it some inherent risks.

He is a traditional “box” goalkeeper in every sense of the word, preferring to let his defenders deal with the danger outside the six-yard box while he comes into his element once the ball reaches his zone.

In terms of personality, he has been reported to be one of Sheffield United’s most influential players in the dressing room despite his tender age and the fact that he’s only on loan from Manchester United. This is bound to be music to the ears of Lampard or any other coach seeking to acquire him.

Chelsea FC v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Improvement needed

Sheffield United’s tactics do not require Henderson to do a great deal of passing and this is reflected in his numbers. On the eye test, his passing does not stand out and still appears raw. The weight on his passes, especially over longer distances, is not consistent correct, and this can put his teammates under pressure.

The team’s exceptional defensive scheme also does not require him to do a great deal of work from a cross-collection perspective, and it will be interesting to see how this translates to a club where there is a greater demand placed on him in this regard.

Economic viability

Being contracted to Manchester United is a major obstacle to any potential deal. But in the unlikely event that United are prepared to sell, in order to raise cash or to satisfy the player’s demands, there is a fair chance that Chelsea will head the long queue for his services.

Due to his remarkable body of work at a young age, homegrown status, and the presence of Manchester United, it is reasonable to anticipate a price tag above £30 million. For the same reasons as those cited for Onana, any deal for Henderson is unlikely to happen this summer.


Ben Foster

Strengths

Foster has been linked to Chelsea in some quarters and it is easy to see why. He knows the league inside out, is a very good shot-stopper and is excellent at collecting crosses. His experience would help Kepa understand the league better, while his ability would ensure that he could act as a safety net in case Kepa’s performances do not improve.

Improvement needed

Foster’s ability on the ball is a big concern. After his stint at Manchester United, he has spent his time exclusively at clubs that prefer to concede possession. At the age of 38, it is not practical to expect him to make dramatic improvements or changes to his game in this regard.

Watford FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Doubts

A major doubt around signing Foster is his ability to adapt to Chelsea. This is not intended to be a barb towards Foster, he is one of the league’s premier keepers, but will he be able to transition from Watford’s style to Chelsea’s at his age? Only time would answer, and Foster has little of that left in his career.

Economic viability

The fact that Foster will be a free agent acts as a significant boost to his prospects, with the coronavirus crisis forcing clubs of all sizes to be more financially responsible. Given his profile and background, it is unlikely he would command big wages.

If Chelsea want a cheap goalkeeper who is great at the fundamentals and are willing to overlook the issue of passing, then Foster is among the best options.


Vicente Guaita

Strengths: Guaita broadly offers the same benefits as Foster while being a bit younger. Besides Chelsea, Manchester City have also been linked with him and it comes as no surprise. He has been among the best shot-stoppers in the league this season while also offering above average numbers in cross-collection.

In a rather interesting coincidence, Guaita has been in the same league as Kepa for the last three seasons and has comprehensively outperformed him in all three.

Buying Guaita would give Kepa a mentor who speaks the same native language, while also offering Chelsea a goalkeeper who is good enough to be first choice right from day one.

Guaita is also known to be a big personality in the dressing room, another benefit for a young team such as Chelsea.

Misplaced concerns

Guaita’s ability to transition from a possession-averse team like Crystal Palace to Chelsea might be a possible source of worry. However, unlike Foster, Guaita might find the transition to Chelsea easy.

FBL-ENG-PR-CHELSEA-CRYSTAL PALACE Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

He was, after all, Valencia’s starting goalkeeper when they were the third best team in Spain. Only the introduction of Diego Alves, an older and more experienced goalkeeper, resulted in his eventual departure from his boyhood club.

Doubts

His passing is definitely not great on the stat sheet but this is likely to be influenced by Palace’s style of play. On the eye test, Guaita seems capable of picking passes albeit not at the level of the likes of Alisson and Ederson.

Economic viability

With a contract that expires in 2021, this summer represents Palace’s final opportunity to get some money for their goalkeeper. But Palace are known to be tough negotiators. If a transfer fee of £15-20million can be sorted, it would be a truly phenomenal deal.


Writer’s recommendation – Predrag Rajković

Rajković has not yet been linked to Chelsea and it is difficult to understand why. He has been among the best goalkeepers in Ligue 1 and offers a great combination of physical attributes and technical competence.

Strengths

Rajković is secure against most types of shots but his best work comes against shots from distance. A big part of this is his ability to parry the ball into safe zones. This results in Reims enjoying possession for a tad longer, thereby allowing them to defuse difficult scenarios.

He also does a better job than most at catching the ball from shots, offering an additional layer of security.

Another standout aspect of his game is his ability to keep out penalties. Rajković leads goalkeepers in the top five leagues in the number of penalties stopped.

Rajković is also very adept at using different body parts to make stops, an underrated attribute that makes him a versatile shot-stopper.

His game on the ball is secure, with his passes finding his teammates at rates comparable to average. Reims are a side that enjoy only 48.8 per cent possession, but he will not have significant issues when moving to a more ball-dominant team.

Improvement needed

His ability to stop low shots is one aspect where he needs to improve. He is a tad slow to get down and smarter attackers might seek to exploit this. However, this is not uncoachable, especially at Rajković’s age.

Another concern is his lack of turning speed. This means that he might be caught flat-footed by deflections. It must be kept in mind that this is a pretty common concern for most goalkeepers who are taller than 1.9m.

Misplaced concerns

A common concern about Rajković is that he is protected by the defensive scheme of Reims, which is reflected in the low difficulty of chances that he is allowed to face. However, he is a big reason as to why Reims are so secure defensively, with his tendency to collect crosses before they evolve into trickier situations particularly useful.

It is not wrong to say that Rajković and the rest of Reims’ defence are in a synergistic relationship — their performances enable him to look excellent but his competence also makes their job much easier. This is the kind of relationship every good defence is built on.

Chelsea FC v Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Doubts

His lack of top level experience when compared to others might also be a source of worry This is his first season in a top five league and he does not have great European pedigree from his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv either. His Champions League experience amounts to just one season, including two defeats against Chelsea.

While his inexperience could pose problems for his initial adaptation to a bigger club, he is young enough to make the leap and more importantly, he has shown the quality to do so.

After all, Alisson only had one season in a top five league, albeit with tremendous Champions League performances, before he moved to Liverpool. Interestingly, the similarity between Rajković and Alisson at AS Roma from a statistical perspective is striking.

This is not to say Rajković will become as good as Alisson, but there are significant similarities between the two in terms of attributes and performances at the same age. Whether Rajković will reach Alisson’s level depends on a variety of factors, some in his control and some not.

Economic viability

With the Ligue 1 season ending prematurely, clubs have been put into tricky financial positions, and Reims are no exception to this. This presents a great opportunity to buy Rajković for cheap, an opportunity on which Chelsea ideally should not miss.

Acquiring Rajković would allow Chelsea to have two young goalkeepers pushing each other while also ensuring Rajković would not have to carry with him the pressure of a big price tag the way Onana would.


Conclusion

One of the biggest misconceptions about Kepa is his lack of consistency. All evidence points towards Kepa being a very consistent performer throughout his career so far. Unfortunately for us, he has been more consistently poor than consistently great.

Regardless of the teams he has played in or the coaches he has played under or the defences he has played behind, he has always been a below average shot-stopper.

In Kepa’s favour, he still has age on his side and could still go on to make a great leap in terms of performances. The main factor that will determine if and how he develops is his willingness to correct the technical faults noted in part 1.

Kepa’s untapped potential, age and most importantly, the transfer market scenario are the main reasons why he should be retained for one more season before taking a final call as to whether to keep or sell him.

However, it is a very risky idea to go with Kepa as the undisputed first choice goalkeeper next season. Buying a goalkeeper who can push him hard in training is imperative and it is no surprise to see several goalkeepers linked to Chelsea.

Obviously, no goalkeeper is perfect and every goalkeeper carries with them unique strengths and weaknesses. The characteristics of the goalkeepers linked to Chelsea have been presented in this article along with the financial feasibility of deals.

It will be interesting to see if Chelsea pursue some from this list or opt to go for a more left-field option that might surprise us all. Regardless of who signs, Chelsea’s goalkeeping situation is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating subplots of the upcoming transfer window.

Chelsea FC v AFC Ajax: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images
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