The curse of Chelsea's record transfer signings: what will become of Kepa Arrizabalaga?

Kepa Arrizabalaga, Chelsea
(Image credit: PA)

Some players are celebrated for who they are and some are appreciated for who they are not. Even before he makes his Chelsea debut, Edouard Mendy may be fortunate enough to fall into both categories. Chelsea’s announcement of his £22 million move included the telling, if unsurprising, detail that he was identified by the previous goalkeeper they signed from Rennes, Petr Cech.

A 6ft 5in figure arrives with high expectations, but also to a soundtrack of sighs of relief. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s increasingly torrid tenure in the Chelsea goal promises to come to an end. Mendy had the highest save percentage of any regular Ligue Un goalkeeper last season, Arrizabalaga the lowest of any Premier League first choice since such statistics were first compiled. Mendy will be charged with being the anti-Arrizabalaga and last season he was. He does not have to be a better version of himself, simply the same, to represent a vast upgrade. 

In the short term, Arrizabalaga may appreciate the respite. He can retreat into the shadows. The haunted look he wore after gifting Sadio Mané Liverpool’s second goal may be replaced by the impassive expressions of the back-up goalkeeper, rarely required to warm up, let alone play.

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A break may be restorative. The suspicion is that a change of scenery would be. The suggestions are that he could be loaned back to a club in his native Spain, perhaps freed from the reputation he has acquired in England as a £71 million failure.

Perhaps, in a different environment, with more confidence and a change of coaching, he could rectify the technical error where, at the risk of sounding simplistic, he dives but without stretching his arms out far enough to save anything, and stop conceding to long-range shots; it is something he has done 19 times in two years in the Premier League.

And yet there will be no happy ending for him at Chelsea or indeed for Chelsea. It is not merely because Mendy will be installed as first choice, because Frank Lampard – and perhaps the defence – seems to have no confidence in Arrizabalaga and because Roman Abramovich’s renewed commitment to spending suggests that even if the newcomer struggles, Chelsea will buy again. Arrizabalaga, meanwhile, seems to have reached the point of no return. But nor will there be much of a refund.

It is partly because of the economic reality whereby Chelsea are anomalies. Only Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Sevilla have spent significant sums in Spain this summer, sometimes on deals set up before coronavirus struck. In a world without buyers, it should be feasible to take Arrizabalaga on loan time and again. They can exploit Chelsea’s position and plead poverty, probably with some justification.

Chelsea may hope Arrizabalaga’s lengthy contract, which lasts until 2025, offers them some form of protection, allowing him to regain his reputation and some of his value and in turn to protect their investment.

And yet their past suggests they have to write off such mistakes eventually. Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres joined at older ages, reducing the windows when they had resale value. Underwhelming spells at Stamford Bridge, to say the least, were followed by loans abroad, where neither recaptured his former potency. Chelsea were not able to sell either. They recouped nothing for club record buys.

That may be Arrizabalaga’s fate, and not merely because Spain’s big three could have continuity in goal for years to come in the shape of Thibaut Courtois, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Jan Oblak, or that his form in the last two years suggests he is nowhere near good enough to replace any of them. Rather than being Chelsea’s new Cech or Courtois, he could become the unwanted successor to Shevchenko and Torres.

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