Introducing Kepa Arrizabalaga: Chelsea’s world-record goalkeeper with magnificent reflexes – but still a lot to learn
It's fair to say that Athletic Bilbao would never have dreamt of getting €80m for Kepa Arrizabalaga. The goalkeeper's contract was originally set to expire this summer, and the Basque club nearly lost their prodigy to Real Madrid in January for just €20m. The deal fell through because Zinedine Zidane was reluctant to displace Keylor Navas during the season and asked president Florentino Perez not to mess with the dressing room atmosphere.
Subsequently, Athletic persuaded Kepa to sign a new long-term contract with an astronomic release clause. Now that Roman Abramovich's club have sensationally triggered it, the bottom line is that everyone has won – except, perhaps, Chelsea.
Real Madrid won the Champions League for the third time in a row with Navas between the posts, and have now managed to acquire Thibaut Courtois – a proven winner and a vastly experienced keeper at the age of just 26. The Belgian has seven years of performing at the highest level with Atletico Madrid and Chelsea under his belt, has won league titles in three different countries (including his first club Genk in 2011) and taken part in 46 European matches (winning the Europa League in 2012 and playing in the 2014 Champions League Final). He’s also represented his national team 65 times and excelled at two World Cups.
By comparison, the 23-year-old Kepa won his only title: the European Under-19 Championship back in 2012. He only played 53 top-division matches in Spain across his entire career, and doesn't have a single match for his club on the European stage because Bilbao decided to let Iago Herrerin play in the Europa League last season. Kepa’s only senior cap for Spain was in a friendly against Costa Rica last November, and he spent the World Cup in Russia as Spain's third-choice goalkeeper.
He will be 24 in October, which means that he’s around two years younger than Courtois. Yet Chelsea chose to pay more than twice the price that they received for the Belgian. By any standards, it’s outrageously optimistic to consider such a deal to be reasonable.
Chelsea’s record signing has at least one thing in common with Alisson, the new Liverpool star he has displaced as the world's most expensive goalkeeper: their rise to fame has been extremely fast. Alisson was virtually unknown in Brazil before getting an opportunity at Internacional at the age of 23, getting promoted to the national team and earning a move to Roma.
Kepa, who joined Athletic Bilbao as a 10-year-old and played for the club at all youth levels, was introduced to the first team slowly by the Basque club, even though manager Marcelo Bielsa let him train with the senior squad back in 2012.
The goalkeeper earned valuable experience in the second division during positive loan spells at Ponferradina and Real Valladolid, but only made his La Liga debut in September 2016, when Ernesto Valverde wasn't fully satisfied with the veteran custodian Gorka Iraizoz. The coach, who is now in charge of Barcelona, decided to rotate his goalkeepers, and Kepa eventually proved to be a highly capable performer.
Cool under pressure and confident in his abilities, Kepa managed to overcome several setbacks, including conceding an early goal on his home debut against Valencia. By the end of the 2016/17 season he was celebrated as a promising prodigy, although his game wasn't perfect by any means.
Summing up his first season a year ago, Mundo Deportivo reporter Endika Rio hailed Kepa for making complicated things look easy. His instincts are remarkable, his reflexes are magnificent, and his footwork is impressive too. The 23-year-old is a modern keeper who likes to be involved in building play from behind, and passes the ball expertly. "Kepa doesn't get nervous when strikers pressure him," Rio stated.
However, he wasn't a finished article. "There is room for improvement in certain areas, especially in dealing with crosses. Kepa doesn't feel comfortable when he moves from the goalline. He's still young," Rio claimed. Those issues continued to be problematic during last season, and the young keeper wasn't always able to help as Athletic experienced a difficult and disappointing season in the bottom half of the table, finishing 16th.
Kepa did well not to be influenced by the Real Madrid transfer saga, but his concentration suffered nevertheless. He made some costly mistakes, and the lowest point was reached in the home fixture against Levante in April. With his team leading 1-0, Kepa conceded a soft goal as Macedonian winger Enis Bardhi curled in a free-kick from a tight angle. Just two minutes later, on the stroke of half-time, Bardhi managed to score from a similar position for a second time, with Kepa late to react yet again.
Those type of errors were easily forgiven and forgotten by the Basque fans, because Kepa was a local idol. He could have left the club for free this summer but became a legend by refusing to do so, instead signing a deal running to 2023 in January.
Things will be very different at Chelsea, however. The price tag is disproportionate, and Courtois' shoes are huge to step into. Calm as he is, Kepa has never experienced situations that remotely reminiscent of the pressure and scrutiny he is about to be under at Stamford Bridge.
At least those who worked with him tend to think he would be able to handle it. "Kepa has amazing confidence in himself to face any type of challenge," says Miguel Angel Portugal, who coached the keeper at Valladolid. It remains to be seen whether he is right.
The Basque star should definitely get the backing of Maurizio Sarri, who considered signing Kepa for Napoli as a replacement for Pepe Reina. "I saw him a year ago, and my first impression was that he is a very good goalkeeper," said the Italian. And yet, the manager himself steps into unknown territory in the Premier League, and his judgement won't necessarily carry great weight with fans or the press yet.
There are certain similarities between Kepa's situation and that of David de Gea, who was signed by Manchester United in 2011 after less than two years as the first-choice goalkeeper at Atletico Madrid. De Gea's first season at Old Trafford was problematic, as he committed numerous errors when dealing with crosses and dead-ball situations. Replacing the legendary Edwin van der Sar proved to be a mammoth task, but the Spaniard was lucky enough to have Sir Alex Ferguson by his side to get through this tough period.
Kepa's situation will be more difficult because Sarri doesn’t have the control Ferguson had earned, and Chelsea have endured a tumultuous 12 months – unlike Manchester United at the beginning of the decade. This move is a steep challenge for a talented goalkeeper – albeit one who still has a lot to prove.