When Chelsea decided, in the summer of 2018, to pay a world record fee for a goalkeeper in order to secure the services of Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, the move was met with skepticism. Kepa, aged 24 at the time, had just completed his first full season as the first choice keeper for the Basque team. He was being asked to join one of Europe’s top clubs, and replace one of Europe’s top goalkeepers after Thibaut Courtois had forced through his move to Real Madrid.
He had wrestled the starting spot from Gorka Iraizoz during the 2016/17 season, having initially began the campaign as third choice behind Iraizoz and Iago Herrerin. He retained the position for the 2017/18 season, and while he did show plenty of promise, it must be noted that Bilbao achieved their lowest league finish in over a decade whilst conceding more goals than they had in the previous four seasons.
There was no doubting Kepa’s potential, he had attracted the interest of Real Madrid in January of 2018, but there were a lot of question marks over him, especially with regards to whether he was ready for a move to a top club. Despite being 24, he had only played 54 games for Bilbao’s first team. His career total stood at 195 games, but that included 60 games in Spain’s second tier during loans spells, 50 in the third tier and 31 in the fourth tier during the formative years of his development in Bilbao’s system.
Chelsea had, for fourteen years, set the standard for Premier League goalkeeping. First with Petr Cech and then without Courtois, they had been able to call on world class goalkeepers. Those two also fit as a specific type of goalkeeper, big commanding physical specimens who could dominate the aerial side of the game as well as be elite shot stoppers. Both were more traditional styled keepers, rather than the modern sweeper keeper who can play out from the back that Kepa was seen as.
Chelsea had tried, and failed, to sign Alisson Becker from Roma that summer. The Brazilian is one’s of the world’s best in terms of distribution and shotstopping, but he’s also a big commanding presence. He would have represented a more natural transition point for Chelsea. Becker stands 6’3 and has a broad build, Cech is 6’5 and Courtois is 6’6. All three dominate the aerial side in terms of claiming crosses, while also excelling in 1v1 situations, in part due to their stature. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Becker decided to join Liverpool and they were left scrambling to find an alternative as Courtois made it clearer and clearer that he wanted out.
How and why they decided on Kepa has never been fully explained, but at 6’1 and with a slight build he was a drastic departure from what they were used to. And importantly, what their defenders were used to. The relationship and understanding between central defenders and goalkeeper is extremely important. Defenders trusting their goalkeeper to deal with crosses, and be reliable in 1v1 situations. It allows them to play a zonal marking set up at set-pieces, it allows them to play a higher line defensively, and it allows a more singular focus on the task at hand.
Chelsea’s defenders had gotten used to playing a certain way, and were already going to have to learn to play a different style in possession with arrival of Maurizio Sarri, now they were going to have to make further alterations defensively on top of the positional changes the new coach wanted.
It was a big ask for Kepa to leave his homeland, the comforts of having his family and friends around, the environments of Athletic Bilbao where he had grown up and move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, in one of the biggest cities in the world. On top of learning a new style of play, getting to know new team-mates and forge an understanding with them that can take years to build. He didn’t have years though, he was the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and it needed to happen immediately.
Kepa’s first season at Chelsea is largely remembered for his refusal to be substituted during the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, which Chelsea lost on penalties. It’s often assumed that his season was a complete disaster but that’s not really accurate. Chelsea conceded only one goal more in 18/19 than they had in 17/18 with Courtois under the more defensive minded Antonio Conte and his 3 centre-back system.
Kepa’s Premier League save percentage of 67.5% was around the league average. He had a clean sheet percentage of 38.9% which was well above average, and conceded a respectable 1.08 goals per game. He played 36 of 38 league games, helping Chelsea jump from 5th the previous season into 3rd, and played a massive role in their Europa League run. His 13 appearances were the most by Chelsea player in that competition, which ended with them lifting the trophy after beating Arsenal in the final.
He also managed to establish himself as the number 1 goalkeeper for the Spanish National Team during that season. Having arrived at Chelsea with only one cap to his name, though a regular in the squad, he was able to translate his good start at Chelsea into a real challenge to David DeGea. And when DeGea’s form dipped rather drastically, Kepa stepped into the starting spot and proved himself to be more than capable of filling the shirt.
Things started to go badly early in his second season. With Frank Lampard appointed as manager, Kepa remained first choice but looked nothing like his previous self. Chelsea conceded 13 goals in their first six league matches, and would go on to concede 49 across the season. Kepa played in 33 games and conceded 42 goals. His save percentage crashed to 54.5%, the worst in the Premier League and among the worst in Europe. His clean sheet percentage dropped to 24.2% which is dreadful for a keeper at a top club, while he conceded a pretty ghastly 1.42 goals per game.
He was dropped for the entire month of February as Lampard laid Chelsea’s defensive issues solely at his feet, but in truth it wasn’t all on him. Chelsea lacked anything resembling defensive structure and shape for large portions of the season, they lacked defensive discipline in midfield. These aren’t the fault of the goalkeeper, they’re the fault of the manager. Lampard’s inability to set his team up defensively played a bigger part in Chelsea’s defensive woes than Kepa did, though Kepa was undeniable poor throughout the season.
Left with little protection in front of him, he lost confidence in himself and conceded soft goals that he would previously have dealt with comfortably. At times, he seemed to have given up even trying to save shots, let alone actually saving them. He looked a shell of himself at times, appearing to be mentally broken. Unfortunately for Chelsea, that poor form has carried over into this season. Unfortunately for Kepa, Chelsea have signed a new goalkeeper.
Edouard Mendy has joined the London club for a fee in the region of £22mil after a meteoric rise in Ligue 1 over the last three seasons. Having made his name with two very impressive seasons for Stade de Reims, Mendy joined Stade Rennais in the summer of 2019 and made an immediate impact in helping them qualify for the Champions League for the first time. Rennes accomplished that with an outstanding defensive record, which Mendy was a massive part of.
Mendy is not an experienced player, and his story makes him one to root for, but from a physical point of view he fits the bill for Chelsea. He’s 6’5 and incredibly athletic. His agility is eye-catching and his 78.4% save percentage last season is exceptional. Over the past three years, that save percentage is 79.5%. He’s not flawless, and can often palm the ball into dangerous areas but he should represent a big upgrade on what Kepa has offered over the last 15 months. He’s also very aggressive when dealing with crosses, which has always been an issue with Kepa, both at Chelsea and Bilbao.
So what does the Mendy signing mean for Kepa? Frank Lampard has said that Mendy is coming in to provide competition, rather than act as a replacement but that seems unlikely. More likely Lampard is trying to keep Kepa focused as he will need him to perform until Mendy is available for selection. It seems improbably that Mendy would leave a team where he was the undisputed number 1 choice and set to play Champions League football to merely be competition somewhere else.
With Mendy as the new number 1, is Kepa set to become the world’s most expensive bench ornament? What would that do to his confidence? What would it do to his market value?
Chelsea made an enormous investment in Kepa. They paid his full £72mil buy-out, plus whatever agent fees were involved in the transaction. Then they signed him to a seven year contract on wages rumoured to be somewhere between £150,000 and £180,000 per week, not including bonuses for appearances, clean sheets and trophies. If we even take it at just a flat £150,000 per week, over a seven year contract that’s a commitment of £54.6mil to the player, on top of the transfer fee. £126.6mil in total, plus agent fees and bonuses that have likely seen the total investment rise to over £135mil at this point.
It’s a lost investment in many ways. Chelsea need to figure out what to do with Kepa, and how they can salvage some value from the move. Despite the immense wealth of Roman Abramovich, he will not be happy to lose that sort of money on one player. Chelsea therefore have three options.
The can keep him, as back-up to Mendy, and just accept that it’s a lost investment. Kepa is unlikely to be very happy with this and it could have a crippling effect on his confidence. He could become a toxic element in the dressing room, and be a very unreliable back-up who they may need to call upon at some point.
They can sell him, but at what price? What is his value in the current market, especially in the middle of a pandemic. They clearly won’t get anything close to the fee they paid for him, but what would someone be willing to pay? £40mil? No chance. £30mil? Seems unlikely. £20mil? Possibly. But is that enough? Could Chelsea really accept a fee that low?
Given the contract they gave him, and the fact that he has five years left, they owe Kepa a massive sum of money over the remainder of it. And who else is going to be prepared to pay him such a big sum? While there may be teams out there willing to part with £20mil for Kepa, but won’t be any willing to match his Chelsea contract. He will have to take a substantial pay-cut at another club, especially as his next destination would likely be outside the Premier League and not at an elite club.
Kepa may have to accept a contract of around half what he currently earns, and that will leave Chelsea on the hook to make up the difference. If he signs elsewhere for around £80k a week, Chelsea will owe him £3.5mil for each of the next five years. That’s an obligation of £17.5mil, to a player they’d no longer own and only received £20mil for. Or less. They could end up losing money on it. In this market, with this version of Kepa, selling is not the option.
So they’re left with the possibility of loaning him and hoping he can recapture his best form and re-establish some real value on the transfer market. With five years on his contract, they have some flexibility. They could look at doing a two year loan, which would allow Kepa to have some security in the move. One of the issues with single season loans for established senior players is that players don’t always commit fully to the move, knowing they will likely be off somewhere else the following season.
If Chelsea could find a two year loan for Kepa, it could be the best move for all parties. It would give them some relief as the loaning club would pay a percentage of his wages, and remove a potential distraction as Frank Lampard rebuilds the team. At the end of the two year loan, he would still have three years left on his contract and thus potentially have real value.
It would give Kepa a fresh start, potentially away from the media glare that comes from playing for a top club. And it would give the loaning club a potentially top class goalkeeper at a reasonable cost.
But where? You’d have to rule out Premier League clubs. His reputation in England is likely too tarnished due to his poor form, and the vendetta that certain Sky Sports pundits seem to have against him.
There’s no doubting that Kepa would represent an upgrade for many clubs, but finances will dictate that the pool of clubs who could realistically take him on loan is quite small.
La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A and the Bundesliga all have multiple clubs that would be interesting land spots for Kepa, clubs he could join and rebuild his career.
He’s a talented goalkeeper who needs a change of scenery, a change of environment and a manager who wants him. The decision lies in the hands of the powers that be at Chelsea, but unless they want to lose every penny of their investment, the best move would be a multi year loan.
*Statistics from FBRef*