The quiet renaissance of Kepa Arrizabalaga meets its sternest test as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper returns to the scene of what may forever be the defining image of his Chelsea career.
Kepa has played 85 times for the Blues since the Carabao Cup final of 2019 when his refusal to yield to a substitution infuriated and undermined his boss, Maurizio Sarri.
And his appearances this season have been strong, stylish and often influential.
One penalty save helped clinch the UEFA Super Cup when sent on in the 119th minute to face the shootout against Villarreal in Belfast. Another in the FA Cup spared the embarrassment of penalties against Plymouth Argyle of League One.
He has stepped in to deputise ably when Edouard Mendy was absent due to Covid and the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), and brilliant saves against Al-Hilal, earlier this month, secured a place in the Club World Cup final.
While, in the Carabao Cup, the 27-year-old ‘keeper has excelled. He set a new Chelsea record with his seventh shootout save, to deny Aston Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba in the third round, extended it to eight when he foiled Southampton’s Theo Walcott in the fourth, and was the hero at Brentford in the quarter finals.
“Super impressed” said Thomas Tuchel, hailing Kepa’s professionalism and attitude in training and his determination to be ready when called upon. “Outstanding character, fantastic team player.”
He is in the best shape he has been as a Chelsea goalkeeper. Certainly, a world away from this time last year when Tuchel arrived to find him locked in a crisis of confidence, deep into his third season in English football.
The world’s most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga returns to the scene of what may forever be the defining image of his Chelsea career
Kepa refused to leave the pitch for Willy Caballero (right) who was deemed the better penalty saver by boss Maurizio Sarri (left)
Kepa’s transfer from Athletic Bilbao in August 2018 came with a hint of desperation, hurried through as Chelsea reluctantly coughed up the £71.6million release clause to solve a problem created when Thibaut Courtois forced his move to Real Madrid.
The season started well enough although the new goalkeeper never appeared entirely at ease, then the Sarriball revolution lost its way, culminating in a 6-0 defeat hammering at Manchester City, two weeks before a Carabao Cup final against the same opponents.
At Wembley, Chelsea held City at bay for 120 minutes. It was goalless and penalties loomed when the farce descended upon Kepa and Sarri. Neither of them emerged with any real credit.
For Sarri, it enhanced a feeling that the players had stopped listening to him while Kepa came across as insolent and disrespectful. This might have been less damaging if his form were better or he won the penalty shootout.
The scrutiny intensified and things got worse when Frank Lampard came in, determined play with more risk and less defensive security. Kepa made mistakes and Lampard’s trust quickly evaporated to the point where he preferred veteran Willy Caballero.
Chelsea signed Mendy for £22m from Rennes and added Petr Cech to the Premier League squad for the new season. Cech, 38 and retired for more than a year, was essentially coronavirus cover but his inclusion came with reasoning that he was as good as anyone when he trained, serving to underline the coaching staff’s feelings on Kepa.
Cech was not required, as things transpired, because Mendy proved to be a commanding presence. When Tuchel replaced Lampard and switched to three centre-halves, making the team more solid at the back, the Senegal international looked unbeatable.
Out of favour, Kepa lost his place in Spain’s squad. Overtaken by Brighton’s Robert Sanchez, he was not involved in Euro 2020. Unai Simon, his successor at Athletic Bilbao, has become the established number one.
It is well over a year since Kepa won his last cap but improvements this season may spark a move as he fights for a recall before the World Cup in November.
Barcelona are among those keeping an eye on him and Chelsea will listen to offers. They do not wish to stand in his way. Equally, they will not give away a costly signing with three years on his contract when there is clear value in the modern game to having such strength in reserve.
There is even an acknowledgement from within the dressing room that Kepa is perhaps the most naturally gifted goalkeeper at the club.
Under Tuchel, his goals conceded per game ratio shades Mendy’s, 0.55 to 0.62 across all competitions.
Kepa has stepped in to deputise Edouard Mendy (pictured) during the Africa Cup of Nations
Then-Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri (pictured) was furious at Kepa for refusing to be substituted and knew the players had stopped listening to him at that stage
Other factors are, of course, in play. Mendy plays in bigger games against better strikers and does not boost his stats against Plymouth, Al-Hilal or Villa reserves.
He also exudes calm with his unfussy authority, keeping his defence panic free. Vital attributes for a goalkeeper at a top club.
The pecking order is firmly set as evident at the Club World Cup, when Tuchel selected Mendy for the final against Palmeiras just days after he returned to the camp following a month away at the AFCON.
Thirty next month, Mendy could continue for years and so despite his restored levels of confidence and self-esteem the Kepa renaissance appears destined to remain incomplete.
Still the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and yet with only fleeting chances to impress.
If another comes his way at Wembley on Sunday, however, and if he wraps his gloves around the League Cup trophy three years after that moment of madness it might at least represent the closure of a personal circle.
It might also conjure an alternative defining image of his career at Chelsea because no players has done more to ensure Tuchel’s team line up against Liverpool at Wembley.
Kepa’s been in good form for Chelsea this season and helped his side win the Club World Cup