Something isn't working for Kepa Arrizabalaga at Chelsea – can Frank Lampard find a way to fix it?
Kepa Arrizabalaga’s season has reached its lowest point. He was left out of the Chelsea side which drew 2-2 with Leicester last weekend and, with Frank Lampard’s players now heading into their winter break, that was presumably a decision taken with the goalkeeper’s reaction in mind.
Lampard wants Kepa to stew over this. That’s clear in the timing. Over 14 days, he's presumably calculated that the player will have time to sulk and pout, then to reflect and, finally – hopefully – to come up with a productive response.
He’ll need to, because without significant improvement he won’t have a Chelsea future beyond the end of this season. Kepa isn’t one of those goalkeepers who routinely makes terrible mistakes. That’s not the problem. Instead, it’s his general level of performance and the nature of the goals he often lets in. They’re not exactly calamaties, they just don’t look right and at a club where stable goalkeeping has been a feature for 15 years, that's not an endearing trait.
On an individual basis, those moments don’t really warrant criticism. Over time, though, and viewed one after the other, they exhibit patterns which justify greater scrutiny. Is the problem with Kepa’s form, temperament, or actually his mechanics and techniques? It's probably the latter.
Chelsea had cause for concern as far back as August, in a pre-season friendly with Borussia Monchengladbach which ended 2-2. The first goal they conceded may have more obviously been Kepa’s fault, coming directly from his wayward clearance, but the second better described one of his continuing issues.
Faced with a one-on-one, he left his line, set himself in that modern, blocking position that David De Gea and Manuel Neuer have popularised, only for the ball to ricochet through him and into the net. It’s a good example, because it’s so typical. Especially because it could be passed off as unlucky.
Chelsea fans who had seen the friendly with RB Salzburg might have disagreed, though, having watched (future Liverpool midfielder) Takumi Minamino score a remarkably similar goal just a few days before, at the end of July.
Minamino found himself through on goal and Kepa again rushed out to close the angle. But again he stopped, again he adopted that blocking position and – again – the ball looped limply past him and into the net.
Over time, this has become one of Kepa’s unwanted signatures. It was seen again in Istanbul, in the first goal he conceded to Liverpool in the Super Cup. Then again at Goodison Park, in the third Everton goal, scored by Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Kepa very rarely attacks the ball.
What that implies is difficult to say – a qualified goalkeeping coach is needed for a proper diagnosis – but it does seem to illustrate a passivity in his game.
Perhaps the better description is to suggest that he uses techniques which don’t really suit his build. De Gea is 6ft 3in and Neuer is nearly 6ft 4in. Kepa is just 6ft 1in which, when considered in terms of his overall reach – the length of his arms and legs as well as his literal height – is a significant difference. It certainly suggests an explanation for why he seems to suffer despite the similarities in style.
But it would also be reductive to say that this issue blights just one department. It doesn't. He's habitually negative at corners, free-kicks and in any crossing situation, during which his first move is nearly always to take backward steps towards his own line.
Again, a coach could presumably offer a rational explanation for why that happens, but it still appears counter-productive. It seems to shift his weight back to his heels, in a way which limits how he can respond and with what kind of range. Think of the goal scored by Aston Villa's Trezeguet at Stamford Bridge in December. Or the one conceded to Valencia's Carlos Soler at the Mestalla. Or to Quincy Promes in the second Ajax game back in London.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) December 6, 2019
Going back further, to Kepa's first season, Dele Alli's header at Wembley flattened him, like a thumping uppercut. And, while well-timed, Paul Pogba's stooping header in the FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge really shouldn't have beaten him either. But it did; he soft-pawed it into the side-netting.
All of those goals were slightly different and each had their own root cause further up the pitch. But they all possessed those backward steps and then, inevitably, ended with the suggestion that Kepa really ought to have done better – either because he didn’t react quickly enough, his hands or feet didn’t make a strong enough contact, or – as in the Soler example – both.
Most recently came his lowest moment of his season, against Newcastle at St James’ Park in that 1-0 defeat. It showed this problem at its most vivid, with Kepa first falling to claim Allan Saint-Maximin’s drifting cross and then allowing Isaac Hayden’s glanced header to pass almost directly through him.
Again, all his weight was in his heels. It made him look as if he was leaning away from the ball and, as it crossed the line, it was like watching someone trying to catch the wind.
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) January 18, 2020
In hindsight, what was interesting was just how little criticism it provoked. Not because Kepa didn’t deserve it, everyone recognised what a bad piece of goalkeeping it had been, but rather because it just looked like the type of goal he might let in. It had that soft, weak-handed aesthetic which made it seem normal and that's a damning assessment of a £70m goalkeeper. That fee has never been his fault, it's worth re-emphasising that, but it remains his burden and this problem still has to be cured.
Kepa evidently isn’t the easiest personality, that’s been proven already, and perhaps being dropped will help smooth some of his rougher edges. By challenging him so directly, Lampard has been bold and, more than likely, created a decisive moment in their relationship. Either this will work really, really well, or it really, really won't. But if it is to be of benefit, then Kepa's own, independent response must be accompanied by Chelsea's analysis of his technical issues.
Either this style of goalkeeping isn’t suiting him, or it just isn’t working in this environment. One way or another, it will have to change.
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