Following a summer of overt flirtation between Real Madrid and Chelsea goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, Los Blancos have got their man. Courtois’ return to Spain has been inevitable for the last few seasons and it became a case of when, rather than if, he would swap West London for Madrid.
However, with only one year left on his Chelsea contract and being unsettled by the interest in him, Chelsea fans can’t be too aggrieved with the club’s decision to sell him as it clearly benefits both parties. He’s got the move he has been angling for, and the club got a decent fee for a player who was clearly not in the right head space to play for them again.
With an enormous void left in the Chelsea team by the big Belgian’s departure, they needed to find a goalkeeper able to step up and replace one of the best shot-stoppers in the league. The club moved fast and quickly identified Athletic Bilbao’s goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, as their new number one. He has signed a seven-year contract at the club after they broke the world-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper by reportedly paying £71.6 million to secure his signature.
A Diamond in the Rough
Kepa joined the Basque club as a 10-year-old back in 2004 and rose through their youth academy to finally make his first-team debut in September 2016. From that point on he went from strength to strength, making 23 appearances in that season. The following season, he really cemented himself as the first-choice between the sticks and made 26 league appearances as the shining light in an ultimately disappointing season where the club finished 16th in La Liga.
Despite poor performances from his teammates, Kepa’s stats are comparable to many of the best keepers in the league. His average saves per game (3.08) betters the tally of Barcelona’s Ter Stegen, Real Madrid’s Navas and even Atlético Madrid’s Oblak – who is widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the league.
Also, he averaged 3.04 catches per game, which again put him above the aforementioned keepers from the league’s top teams and, coupled with his 94% claim success rate, is a testament to the way he commands his penalty area.
Success at Youth Level
Despite being part of an underachieving team at club level, Kepa’s greatest success has come through youth international football. He has been a mainstay in the Spanish youth system since breaking into it at under-18 level, with his finest hour coming during the 2012 under-19 European Championships where he was a pivotal part of the Spanish team that won the competition.
He won many plaudits during the competition and was the hero during their penalty win over France following a 3-3 draw in ordinary time. During the shootout, he saved 2 penalties taken by future stars Samuel Umtiti and Geoffrey Kondogbia. This was a breakout tournament for him and garnered the attention of the Spanish media who quickly identified him as “one to watch”.
After his success at youth level, Kepa was finally called up to the senior side in March 2017 but had to wait until the autumn to make his first-team debut, playing the full 90 minutes in a 5-0 victory over Costa Rica in November. He followed this up by making the final 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. However, he was an unused substitute in an ultimately disappointing campaign for La Roja, in which first-choice goalkeeper, David De Gea, made a number of high profile blunders.
The Perfect Goalkeeper for Sarri’s System
One of the biggest questions ahead of Maurizio Sarri’s appointment as Chelsea coach was how Courtois would fit into his system. A cornerstone of his unique philosophy, dubbed “Sarrismo”, is using central defenders to start attacks from deep-lying positions. As well as needing ball-playing centre-backs, it also needs a goalkeeper who is adept with his feet in order to feed the ball to the defenders, or to re-distribute a pass-back to relieve pressure on the defence.
For all of his quality, playing the ball consistently has been a shortcoming in Courtois’ repertoire thus far and, given Sarri’s reticence to compromise on his vision, it is hard to see how he would have fitted Courtois into this new look Chelsea team.
By contrast, throughout his time in Spain, Kepa has showcased his wide range of passing and ability with the ball at his feet. It’s very risky trying to convert a goalkeeper who is uncomfortable playing with the ball, so the fact that this is already part of his game is one of the main reasons he was so high on Chelsea’s radar. Also, at just 23 years old, he still has room to develop and under Sarri’s guidance could grow into one of the world’s best goalkeepers.
Overall, it’s too early to say whether spending such a hefty amount to bring him to the club will be worth it. However, on the evidence of his time in Spain, it appears that he has all the raw attributes to be a success at Stamford Bridge and if his talent can be harnessed in the right way, then his ceiling is up there with the best. Hopefully this is just the beginning of Kepa’s long and fruitful career at Chelsea and I, for one, am optimistic he is the right man for the job.