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The Kepa Arrizabalaga resurgence: Forgotten Chelsea goalkeeper’s story of redemption

It was not too long ago that Kepa Arrizabalaga felt like his Chelsea career was all but over. After a tumultuous season with the Blues under Frank Lampard that saw them concede 54 goals in the league, the Spaniard was displaced in goal by Édouard Mendy. The most expensive goalkeeper in the world who joined the club from Athletic Bilbao in the summer of 2018 for a fee of £72m was suddenly deputy to his Senegalese teammate and used only for cup competitions – but when Youri Tielemans gloriously scored past him in the 2021 FA Cup final, it seemed like his time in West London was drawing to an end.

Amidst a total loss of confidence in him amongst the Chelsea faithful as well as speculation in the summer about Lazio wanting to take him away on loan, it felt like the chance to redeem his exorbitant price tag would never come. However, the beautiful game does offer a chance at redemption – and it did when Kepa came on for Mendy in the closing minutes of the Super Cup final against Villarreal and dug out a couple of saves in the shoot-out to win it for the Blues. When Kepa denied Raúl Albiol from the spot, it was not only a beautiful moment of redemption – it was a defining moment in his Chelsea career.

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The picture of the Spaniard being hounded by his teammates was a defining one in his career at the club, one that meant that Chelsea can call upon their second-choice to perform whenever required. And the Blues knew that they would need a capable deputy to step up when Mendy would have to leave Cobham mid-way through the season to represent Senegal in the African Cup of Nations, to sustain their challenge in multiple cup competitions as well as in the league. Kepa would have to exorcise the demons from his past to step up in the reliable Mendy’s absence, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he did.

His shoot-out heroics in the Super Cup final foreshadowed more saves from the spot in the season to follow, as the Spaniard came up clutch in back-to-back rounds of the Carabao Cup this season. Kepa was a picture of belief and confidence when he pulled off multiple saves from the spot against Aston Villa and Southampton in the third and fourth rounds of the Carabao Cup, besides stepping up in Mendy’s absence through injury against Tottenham Hotspur in the league to keep a clean sheet. But the best spell of form that he has had at Chelsea was yet to come – he had saved it for a time when the club needed it the most.

After Mendy left for international duty in early January, Chelsea faced a barrage of cup games as well as the odd Premier League outing – and Kepa’s first task was to be in goal for the Carabao Cup semi-finals against Spurs. Kepa passed his first test with flying colours as he kept clean sheets in both legs, a couple of confident outings including one where he showed great presence of mind to trap Harry Kane offside intentionally. When Chelsea travelled to the Etihad to face Manchester City, Kepa held his own with a one-on-one save to deny Jack Grealish – despite conceding from a world-class Kevin de Bruyne strike.

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Although Chelsea lost the outing to the champions, Kepa did his best to restrict the scoreline to only 1-0 – and followed it up with another clean sheet in a win against Spurs, this time in the league. His next task came in a home game against Plymouth Argyle in the fourth round of the FA Cup, one where he came up clutch from the spot once again in extra time to help his club progress to the next round. It was another important penalty save from the man who dethroned the legendary Petr Cech as the Chelsea goalkeeper with the most number of penalty saves earlier this season, and his redemption arc was set to continue.

Chelsea travelled to the United Arab Emirates earlier this month to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup, to win the last piece of silverware left for the club to win every available trophy in club football – as well as to redeem their loss in the final a decade ago. While Romelu Lukaku sent the Blues ahead in the first half of the semi-final against Al Hilal, it took a second-half masterclass by Kepa to maintain the score and send the Blues to the final. Kepa came up with three brilliant saves – including one where he flew at full stretch to deny Mohammed Kanoo – and was named Man of the Match for his inspiring performance.

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The display underlined the kind of form that the 27-year-old Chelsea goalkeeper has found himself in. Having played 13 games this season, Kepa has only conceded eight goals – and has made 39 saves from the total of 47 shots on target that he has faced in all competitions. A solid save percentage of 82.97% is encouraging for the custodian who had the worst save percentage of any starting goalkeeper in the Premier League with 54.50% only two seasons ago and only goes to show how his form, like many of his teammates, has seen major improvement since the appointment of Thomas Tuchel in January last year.

When compared to goalkeepers in the top five European leagues over the past year in all competitions, Kepa averages a clean sheet in every two games – ranking him in the 98th percentile. However, while his clean sheet record can be attributed to the Blues’ usually water-tight defence, Kepa’s improvement can be properly analyzed by his Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) numbers. Since PSxG factors in the quality of the shot taken rather than just the quality of the opportunity (xG), a goalkeeper’s ability to make saves can be judged by the difference between their goals conceded and the PSxG of the chances they face.

Over the past 365 days in all competitions, Kepa averages 1.12 PSxG conceded per 90 while conceding 0.82 goals per game – meaning that his PSxG minus goals against per 90 is 0.30. The Chelsea goalkeeper’s PSxG minus GA numbers ranks him in the 98th percentile amongst goalkeepers in the top five European leagues, a sharp contrast from his PSxG and PSxG minus GA numbers per 90 in the ‘19/20 season which read 1.08 and -0.30 respectively – ranking him only in the 9th percentile. In simpler words, while he is now facing a better quality of shots, he is proving to live up to the task like never before.

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At the beginning of the season, the Spaniard’s article on The Players’ Tribune was a heart-warming read that focused on the hardships that he faced in the worst season of his footballing career. With his form undergoing an unprecedented slump, Kepa was subjected to death threats on his social media platforms and often felt burdened with a “responsibility” to live up to his world-record price tag – but even when his career in West London hung in the balance as he was first dropped in favour of Willy Caballero and then Mendy, Kepa showed great professionalism to hold on and wait for an opportunity to prove his ability.

As Chelsea lifted the Champions League trophy in Porto after defeating Manchester City, Kepa’s unbridled joy at the Estadio do Dragão was a sight to behold. Although Mendy had played the match, with Kepa on the bench, the deputy goalkeeper interpreted his joy on that night as a symbol of “how close we are as a team,” adding “the coaches deserve recognition for making every one of us feel important”. Kepa’s patience eventually paid off, as his displays this season have affirmed his knack of turning up on the big occasion, as it is courtesy of him that Chelsea are about to compete in two Cup finals this month.

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Édouard Mendy joined the travelling Chelsea contingent in Abu Dhabi on the eve of the Club World Cup semi-final after inspiring Senegal to success in the African Cup of Nations, but there is no doubt about the fact that he will not be able to simply walk into the line-up for the final against Palmeiras. It is a major testament to his deputy’s ability and performance that the FIFA Best Goalkeeper of the Year for 2021 will not instantly regain his spot in goal for the European champions, as Kepa has not only filled in during his absence – but also proven his argument on why he should be contesting with Mendy between the posts.

If Kepa does start in the final against Palmeiras on Saturday and Chelsea go on to win, it will be another piece of silverware that the Spaniard will have directly contributed to his team winning this season. The trophy will add to the Europa League success in his first season at the club, (where he was influential in the semi-final penalty shoot-out) the Champions League win last season and the Super Cup this season – strengthening the argument that not all of the money spent on him in 2018 has gone in vain. And if he does help Chelsea beat Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley later this month, Kepa will have completed his redemption arc in the final of a tournament where he infamously refused to be substituted in 2019, and prove his worth as the ultimate cup goalkeeper to cement a place in the club’s history books.

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