Kepa Arrizabalaga is rebuilding his confidence as Chelsea’s second-choice goalkeeper


Splurging £72 million — a world-record fee for a goalkeeper — on little-known Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao was always going to be a risky move by Chelsea. But, having not learned from their mega-money failings in the past, like buying Fernando Torres for £50m, Roman Abramovic went ahead and funded the hefty move for a player who had proved to be worth nowhere near that large valuation.  

In all fairness, the west London outfit were desperate for a new number one keeper after the legendary Petr Čech switched allegiances to their cross-city rivals Arsenal a couple of seasons prior to Kepa’s arrival at Cobham in August 2018 and the Czech’s apparent replacement, Thibaut Courtois, forcing a move to Real Madrid earlier in the summer so that he could be closer to his family. 

His Chelsea career initially got off to a good start, keeping six clean sheets in 12 games as the Blues started the 2018-19 season unbeaten and regularly favoured in the in play betting on, while he saved a penalty in the League Cup semi-final shoot-out against Tottenham Hotspur — helping Chelsea reach the final, where things ultimately turned sour against Manchester City. 

Then Blues gaffer Maurizio Sarri had opted to substitute the Spaniard for Willy Caballero as penalties once again loomed, but in a strange state of affairs, which was later deemed a misunderstanding by both parties, Kepa refused to leave the pitch. He did manage to save a penalty, but Chelsea still lost 4-3 to Pep Guardiola’s side. 

The outrage in the aftermath of the cup final soon wore off and Kepa’s penalty heroics continued at the end of his debut season, as he saved two spot kicks from Eintracht Frankfurt to send Chelsea through to the Europa League final — where they thrashed Arsenal 4-1 in Baku to win Europe’s secondary club competition for a second time. 

With Sarri sacked despite that Europa League success, Kepa really struggled under the guidance of Frank Lampard, with Chelsea’s all-time top scorer publicly shaming the 27-year-old after poor showings on numerous occasions before eventually dropping him to the bench all together in favour of Caballero. 

The arrival of Édouard Mendy was deemed by many to be the end of Kepa’s Chelsea career, and further mistakes in his limited appearances throughout the 2020-21 season certainly didn’t do him, nor his confidence, any good. However, like many players since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel, the goalkeeper’s form has taken a drastic rise. 

Yes, Kepa is hardly justifying that he is, in fact, now worth £72m, but he is starting to prove that he is a decent backup to Mendy. Despite even more shoot-out success as Chelsea won their first European Super Cup, beating Villarreal in Belfast earlier this season, there are still trust issues with the fans after being scarred by those poor performances in the past.

There was a certain degree of panic when Mendy headed off to represent Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations last month, but Kepa didn’t really put a foot wrong in his run of six or seven matches. He kept clean sheets in both legs of Chelsea’s EFL Cup semi-final against Tottenham as the Blues secured their place at Wembley, while he also didn’t have to pick the ball out of the back of the net in their Premier League encounter with Antonio Conte’s side — which ended 2-0. 

He did concede in the FA Cup fourth round tie to Plymouth Argyle, but his performance on the whole received plaudits as he made a huge one-on-one save before denying the League One outfit a later equaliser as he matched Ryan Hardie’s spot-kick. 

“It’s not only about the penalty save but it’s also about the performance, it was a very good performance,” Chelsea’s assistant manager, Arno Michels, said after the game. “In the last matches, I’ve felt him very reliable in his game.”

“His strength is to save penalties, he’s shown it a few times now: in the Carabao Cup twice, against Villarreal, and even in training, it’s hard to beat him. In penalty shoot-outs, he has the ability to read the mind of what the player is going to do. We are very happy with Kepa and he deserves this trust because he is a fantastic guy.”

Kepa’s re-found confidence and his ability to make big saves from 12 yards makes him the perfect cup goalkeeper for Tuchel. It will be interesting to see if the German goes as far to even select him in the EFL Cup final against Liverpool on February 27th, or chooses to go for the ‘safer’ option in Mendy. One way or another, Chelsea have themselves a decent option when rotation is needed and it’s always nice to see a player overcome their troubles and start enjoying the game again!