Why we have to cut our losses on Kepa

In the aftermath of Chelsea’s damaging 3-0 defeat at Bramall Lane last weekend, Lampard stated with intent: “I have learned a lot and I won’t forget that”. Chelsea put in arguably their worst performance of the Lampard era as they were schooled by a well-drilled Sheffield United. The ominous message Lampard delivered after the game seemed to be directed at individuals he felt he could no longer trust to meet his standards. No player has let down this side more than goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga this season, and should Lampard follow through on what he said, the Spanish goalkeeper will be one of the first players to leave Stamford Bridge this summer. But where did it all go wrong for our £71.6 million record signing, and is there anyway back for him from here?

Kepa did not exactly cover himself in glory in the Sheffield United game. He cannot be faulted for the first goal conceded, in fact he produced a respectable save to keep out Oli McBurnie via a deflection, but once again his ability was called into question as he was beaten at his near post for the home side’s second. Andreas Christensen’s positioning may have been amateur – allowing McBurnie a free header at goal – but Kepa remained planted to the spot, unable to produce a straight-forward stop despite being well positioned to do so. You have to look back just a week to the Crystal Palace game to spot another poor piece of goalkeeping from the former Athletic Club man, as he was unable to keep out a Wilfried Zaha rocket, which was nowhere near the top corner and was hit from an astonishing 30 yards out. These two poor showings have added to a long list of disappointing displays from Kepa this season. 

Chelsea have shipped a remarkable 49 goals in just 35 league games this season – a far cry from the 15 conceded all season in 2004/05 with Petr Cech in goal –  ranking them 11th in the league for goals conceded. However, by the expected goals table from understat (a metric which is based off the analysis of 300,000 shots, which determines the likelihood of a goal being scored from a specific scenario), Chelsea should have only conceded 39 goals – 9 fewer than in reality and the 5th best record in the league this season (behind only the Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Manchester City). From this data we can infer that Kepa’s goalkeeping has been the deciding factor between us having one of the best defensive records in the league and having a very mediocre one. It might encourage Lampard to know that his side give up relatively few high probability goal scoring opportunities, but it must concern him that when they do, they are converted at an alarming rate.

Not everyone is convinced by the expected goal system. An example of an anomaly in the system is Manchester United youngster Mason Greenwood, who has netted 9 league goals from an expected total of 3 expected goals. However, over time these numbers tend to average out, with even supreme finishers like Greenwood bound to experience less prolific spells over a much longer time frame than his 980 league minutes to date. Kepa has had the whole season to bring his expected goals against to actual goals against ratio down and yet has failed to do so.

Whilst expected goals might not be an entirely trusted metric, a sure-fire way to test shot-stopping ability is save percentage. Although it does not discriminate between the quality of shots faced, over a long period of time it is likely to give a reasonable insight into a goalkeepers ability to keep the ball out of the back of their net. Whilst we have seen spectacular stops made by Kepa, including his low dive to keep out Ben Foster’s last minute headed attempt against Watford, as well as his triple save against Liverpool in the FA Cup in March, his overall shot-stopping has been horrific. In fact, the Spaniard has the worst save percentage of goalkeepers to have made more than 5 starts in the league this season. His horrendous save percentage of 56.5% is a whole 7.3% worse than the next weakest number 1 goalkeeper in the league, Jordan Pickford. This means that close to every other shot on target results in a goal for opposition attacks, a truly morbid statistic for Chelsea fans. 

One of Kepa’s supposed strengths when he was brought to the club was his distribution. With first Sarri and now Lampard keen to build play from the back, it was vital Chelsea had a goalkeeper in place who was comfortable with the ball at his feet. Last season, Kepa ranked joint second for Premier League goalkeepers for proportion of passes played short, his 61% putting him level with Alisson and behind only Ederson (76%). To give credit where credit is due, the Spaniard has completed an impressive 79.7% of his passes this season, only 5% behind Alisson and 7% behind Ederson. It might be useful to know that potential targets to replace Kepa in the future, Nick Pope and Dean Henderson, have completed only 36.2% and 36.4% of their passes respectively. Lampard is clearly keen to put his faith in a goalkeeper who wants the ball at their feet to help start attacks with precise, short passes as opposed to booting the ball long for a target man, and if Henderson or Pope were to come in it could take them a long time to adjust to this system and even approach Kepa’s ball playing ability. 

Being comfortable with the ball at your feet might be of growing importance to the modern goalkeeper, however, other attributes of a goalkeeper’s game are clearly more important, such as shot-stopping and ability to claim crosses. Kepa struggles with both. He is never going to be the most commanding presence in his area due to his lack of height: he stands at only 1.86m tall, 6cm shorter than compatriot David de Gea, 5cm shorter than Alisson and a couple of centimetres smaller than both Jan Oblak and Ederson. However, that is no excuse for his lack of ability to deal with any kind of cross. This chink in his armour exposed against West Ham in our 3-2 defeat a couple of weeks ago, as he raced out to try and claim a deep, in-swinging corner inside his 6-yard box, only to get stuck behind N’Golo Kanté and left stranded for Tomas Soucek to head home (having already harshly had a goal from a corner ruled out, with Kepa left hopelessly flapping for that attempt as well). 

Kepa was left in no man’s land after failing to collect a corner, leading to West Ham’s equaliser, photo credit: The Sun

His haplessness when it comes to claiming crosses is highlighted when it comes to set pieces. A league high 8.2% of the corners Chelsea concede result in goals, almost double the next worse rate of 4.8% by Man City (and is the second worst rate in Europe’s top 5 leagues). This horrendous record is not solely down to Kepa, as he hasn’t been helped out by Chelsea’s poor enforcement of zonal marking, or the bizarre decision making which has led to Kanté marking Van Dijk and Azpilicueta marking the 1.92m tall Soucek, who is 14cm taller than him. However, the lack of confidence Kepa has in his ability to claim corners delivered into his six yard box means he often doesn’t attempt to catch or punch the ball, leading to opposition strikers getting efforts on goal from point-blank range, which inevitably result in goals. 

Kepa’s failings between the sticks saw Lampard make the brave call of dropping the most expensive goalkeeper of all time to the bench, making the decision after his number one somehow let a low shot from Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin from outside the box dribble into his bottom corner in January. Willy Caballero, our 38 year old back-up keeper, was brought in in his place for five key fixtures, including the last 16 Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. The Argentinian veteran didn’t fare any better than his Spanish teammate (in fact his save percentage was a staggeringly low 53%) but Lampard made a point to the board: Kepa needed replacing. Solid performances before the season’s break, including back-to-back clean sheets against Liverpool and Everton, built up some good credit with fans, but that quickly dissipated, with the Blues conceding 10 goals in 6 games from just 21 shots on target following the restart!

Finally, an article about Kepa would not be complete without reference to his incredible antics in last season’s league cup final. With extra-time drawing to an end and a penalty shootout looming, Sarri decided to take off his cramp-stricken keeper in place of penalty saving specialist Caballero. However, the Spaniard refused to leave the pitch, prompting mass hysteria from the Chelsea bench and ultimately massively undermining the Sarri’s authority. To make matters worse, Kepa failed to keep out a very tame Sergio Agüero spot kick as Chelsea lost the shootout. The disrespect Kepa showed that day did nothing to enhance his reputation with Chelsea fans following a very difficult start to life in London, and matters have only regressed since. Things could have worked out so differently though, had our chief transfer target of the summer 2018 window been brought in.

Kepa’s refusal to be substituted off signalled the beginning of the end for Sarri at Chelsea , photo credit: 101greatgoals.com

When Chelsea missed out on the signature of Alisson, and with Courtois forcing a move to Real Madrid, the club seemed to rush into buying a goalkeeper. Kepa was signed for a world record fee, with Chelsea triggering his enormous release clause and offered him a huge seven-year contract. At this stage selling Kepa would result in a massive loss on the initial investment in him, but according to sportrac.com, the Spaniard’s wages eat up £7,800,000 a year, and keeping him on the books for the remainder of his contract would cost a gigantic £39 million between now and 2025. The club have to come to terms with the fact that they have made a very costly mistake and try and move the hapless goalkeeper on. With potential interest from Valencia and Sevilla over a return to La Liga on an initial 2 year-long loan with an obligation to buy, Marina Granovskaia needs to once again work her magic to force as much money out of Kepa’s sale as she can. In the current pandemic-hit market, Chelsea would do well to recoup even a third of the gigantic sum they splashed out on Kepa, but at this point he needs to be sold and replaced. 

Lampard has given his number one plenty of time to make an impression, bringing him back following his spell on the bench, but he has yet to be rewarded by his keeper. Chelsea’s defensive woes have been our Achilles heel this season and Kepa has been central to the problem. If we are to mount a sustained title challenge over the next few seasons, we will need a far more accomplished custodian in goal, otherwise we will likely let our most promising side since the 2012 vintage drift into mediocrity. 

Written by Daniel New


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