Is Kepa one of Tuchel’s greatest Chelsea successes?

Will Ford

Kepa Arrizabalaga was the hero once again for Chelsea on Saturday. Thomas Tuchel has revived the £72m man.

During the 2019/20 season, Kepa was truly awful – the most expensive goalkeeper in the Premier League was also the worst: put a cross on top of him and he would flap at it; press him in possession and possession would be yours; shoot anywhere on target and you would have close to a one-in-two chance of scoring a goal. He was a figure of fun. A goalkeeper for whom Chelsea inexplicably paid £72m (he was valued at £20m at the time) was now worth next to nothing.

Let’s be clear, he’s still not worth £72m, or even half that eye-watering number, but Tuchel has created a situation where Chelsea have a very decent back-up goalkeeper and one with some sell-on value.

“Kepa is the best in percentage in saving penalties,” Tuchel explained after he subbed Kepa on for Edouard Mendy for the Super Cup penalty shoot-out against Villarreal in August. It was an answer akin to a shrug of the shoulders – he’s the best, so why wouldn’t I do that? – but it took quite some gall to replace the man considered to be the best goalkeeper in the world with one who had consistently failed to deliver for Chelsea. Whether Tuchel was thinking ahead or if it was indeed purely down to the numbers, he gave Kepa the chance to be the hero, to feel integral to the group ahead of a season in which he would be required.

Penalty heroics to claim Chelsea’s first trophy of the season at Windsor Park were followed by shoot-out saves in rounds three and four of the League Cup, and a penalty save in extra-time at Stamford Bridge on Saturday spared them the lottery of another shoot-out in the FA Cup against Plymouth. But as third-choice keeper Marcus Bettinelli explains, it’s a lottery in which Kepa already knows half the numbers.

“He is so good at penalties, he makes people miss them,” Bettinelli says. “He is frightening. He loves it, even in training. You can see he gets an absolute buzz off it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s scary. He has full belief that he is going to save every penalty. For most keepers, they will see it as a 50-50 at best. He sees the situation as 60-40 in his favour. It’s unbelievable to watch.”

Kepa Arrizabalaga saving a penalty

That confidence has seeped into his overall displays this season. From a save percentage low of 54.5% in 2019/20, to 84.6% from an admittedly small sample size of four games in the Premier League this season – he’s saved 11 of the 13 shots on target he’s faced. That’s bettered only by Wolves’ Jose Sa (84.8%), with Mendy third on 81%.

Kepa has thrived in Mendy’s absence. No matter Tuchel’s public confidence in his second-string goalkeeper, he – like Chelsea fans – will have been worried about January without arguably their best player of the last year.

Tuchel was adamant Mendy was still Chelsea’s No.1 last season even as Mendy was rested and will no doubt reaffirm that stance in the coming days. While Kepa has impressed at home, Mendy was busy winning the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, saving the crucial spot-kick to defeat Egypt. He’s outstanding. And although Kepa has performed to a level at which Chelsea haven’t massively missed their clear first-choice, there have been odd occasions when it was difficult not to wonder whether Mendy would have done better. Brilliant though Kevin de Bruyne’s strike was in Man City’s 1-0 win, for example, Kepa made it look unsavable through a poor bit of footwork.

We’re being picky, but Mendy has made us so; he’s set an incredibly high bar at Chelsea. As did Thibaut Courtouis and Petr Cech before him. It’s a bar a £72m goalkeeper should be able to reach but Kepa is not, and never has been, a £72m goalkeeper. He is a good goalkeeper though, who has proven in the last month he’s more than a specialist spot-kick stopper. He is really bloody good at that though.