Kepa’s comeback: Why world’s most expensive ‘keeper is Chelsea’s No 1 again

“I am playing with confidence. I feel good and I am helping the team.”

Chelsea may have just dropped points to several of their top-four rivals after a goalless draw at Brentford on Wednesday night, but it’s no surprise that Kepa Arrizabalaga was so cheerful when speaking to Amazon Prime after the game.

The clean sheet was the Blues’ fifth in succession and extended their unbeaten run to seven matches in all competitions. Kepa’s confidence comes from the fact he has been a key figure behind the team’s upturn in form.

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After warming the bench in all but one of Chelsea’s seven matches under Thomas Tuchel at the start of this season, the goalkeeper has been able to reclaim the No 1 shirt under new head coach Graham Potter thanks to some outstanding individual performances – and an unfortunately-timed injury to the previous first choice, Edouard Mendy.

But football moves fast and, just seven weeks after a transfer window in which he considered leaving Chelsea closed, Kepa now finally appears comfortable playing under the status as the world’s most expensive ‘keeper.

The case for Kepa over Mendy

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Kepa Arrizabalaga makes an incredible point-blank save to keep out Danny Ings’ header and preserve Chelsea’s 1-0 lead against Aston Villa

Kepa’s first appearance of the season came in Tuchel’s final game in charge – the miserable 1-0 defeat away to Dinamo Zagreb at the start of September.

The assumption was Mendy would return to the side once he had shaken off a knee injury but, instead, he has been consigned to the role of substitute ever since.

After starting in the defeat to Dinamo – which he stopped from being even more embarrassing thanks to a brilliant save to deny Stefan Ristovski in the second half – Kepa has retained the No 1 shirt for all seven of the matches Potter has overseen.

It’s not just the stunning saves – the ones from Danny Ings and Jacob Ramsey in the win over Aston Villa were particularly impressive – that has seen the former Brighton boss keep faith in Kepa.

The graphic below compares the Spaniard’s performance with Mendy’s across a variety of metrics this season and shows he is outperforming his team-mate in a number of areas.

Kepa vs Mendy 22/23

The higher number of clean sheets and fewer goals conceded can also be put down to the team’s improved defensive performance since Potter arrived – after all, Tuchel had a similar impact immediately after replacing Frank Lampard in January 2021 – but Kepa deserves his share of the credit.

The next graphic further demonstrates the positive impact Kepa has had on Chelsea’s results since usurping Mendy.

Chelsea with Kepa vs Chelsea with Mendy in Prem 22/23

Again, the increase in goals scored and points won can in no small way be attributed to Potter’s impact, but the difference when comparing the number of shots Kepa and Mendy let in compared to the number of goals they are expected to concede is stark.

Kepa’s numbers show he is conceding just 0.25 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League – a full 0.9 fewer than expected. In contrast, Mendy’s goals conceded total is 0.06 higher than expected. It hardly paints him as a liability, yet clearly demonstrates the extent to which he has been outperformed by his deputy.

The 28-year-old has helped Chelsea to five consecutive clean sheets but he has not recorded six in a row since arriving from Athletic Bilbao more than four years ago. Helping the Blues to another shutout at home to Manchester United on Saturday – live on Sky Sports – would be the perfect way to do so.

How has Kepa improved?

While the statistics show Kepa deserves his place in the starting XI, do they also show he has improved as a player?

The answer appears to be yes. The table below shows that, not only is Kepa conceding fewer goals and making more saves this season than during the rest of his Chelsea career, but he’s also been more authoritative in the air.

Kepa’s progress this season

All comps, per 90 mins Kepa this season Kepa before this season
Goals conceded 0.38 1.07
Saves 2.75 2.17
Passes attempted 26.63 28.67
Crosses caught or punched 1 0.69

At just over 6’0″, Kepa is not one of the taller ‘keepers around and his ability to deal with high balls into the penalty area was criticised during his previous spell as the Blues’ No 1. But, perhaps under instruction from Potter and his coaching staff or perhaps thanks to his new-found confidence, Kepa is now far more proactive when handling aerial threats.

While four matches is an admittedly small sample size, Kepa’s output in the Premier League this season places him among the best in the division across a range of metrics.

Kepa vs PL keepers, 22/23

Given Chelsea have conceded just one goal in Kepa’s four matches it’s not hard to see why he tops that leaderboard, but the fact he ranks third for saves per 90 minutes shows he isn’t playing behind an impenetrable defence.

Ranking first for punched clearances is further evidence of his improvement under the high ball, while coming in second behind only Newcastle’s Nick Pope for regains (when a ‘keeper comes off their line to win possession for their team) demonstrates his suitability for Potter’s style, which includes defending with a high line.

How errors crept into Mendy’s game

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Edouard Mendy’s howler gifts Brenden Aaronson and Leeds the opening goal against Chelsea

While Kepa’s renaissance has been a welcome boost for Chelsea and Potter, questions do need to be asked about why Mendy’s form deserted him.

Injury was originally to blame for the Senegal international losing his place against Dinamo and he was unfortunate to be sidelined for Potter’s first games in charge, handing Kepa a head start in the race to win the new head coach’s affections.

But Mendy could have had no complaints if his demotion had been based purely on his performances, which were below his usually high standards. Compared to his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge, the 30-year-old was conceding more goals and recording fewer clean sheets this campaign, as well as completing a lower percentage of his passes and fewer regains of possession.

Mendy’s drop in standards could be traced back to last season, when a gaffe with the ball at his feet handed West Ham a penalty in a 3-2 defeat at the London Stadium in December – a game that also saw the ‘keeper palm Arthur Masuaku’s cross into his own net to hand the Hammers a late winner.

Then, against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals in April, Mendy underhit a pass to Antonio Rudiger when way outside his area that allowed Karim Benzema to pinch possession and roll the ball into the empty net during a 3-1 loss.

Another error occurred early this season during Chelsea’s dismal 3-0 defeat at Leeds, which began with Mendy again having his pocket picked while dallying with the ball at his feet, allowing Brendon Aaronson to set the hosts on their way.

And his most recent appearance – the 2-1 win over West Ham last month – was capped with another mistake as he dropped the ball at the feet of Maxwel Cornet to gift the Hammers a late leveller that was controversially disallowed for a foul on the ‘keeper.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win against West Ham in the Premier League when Edouard Mendy was bailed out by a contentious VAR call

Chelsea’s defensive decline during the second half of Tuchel’s reign has been well documented and, as the starting goalkeeper for much of that time, Mendy must shoulder his share of responsibility.

What now for Chelsea’s ‘two No 1s’?

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Ahead of Chelsea’s draw at Brentford, Graham Potter gave his thoughts on Kepa Arrizabalaga, with the Spaniard having impressed since the new boss’ arrival

Potter has so far been unwilling to verbally crown either Kepa or Mendy since taking the Chelsea job – referring to them as “two No 1s” – but his actions have done the talking. Kepa is undoubtedly the starter and is likely to hold onto the role if he maintains his impressive form.

As well as being welcome news for the head coach, Kepa’s comeback is a boost for Todd Boehly and the rest of Chelsea’s owners. The £71.6m the west London club spent to sign the Spaniard in the summer of 2018 remains the highest fee paid for a goalkeeper, and he reportedly receives a salary commensurate with that status.

Kepa’s role as a back-up meant finding a club willing to give Chelsea a sizeable return on their investment and take on his wages was unlikely, with Tuchel admitting earlier this season that, in the most recent transfer window, the player “checked his options [but] they were not satisfying for him or for us.”

But Kepa’s current displays help to make the fee Chelsea paid for him look a little less reckless, while they will also serve to inflate his value should any club decide to present a satisfactory offer.

However, Kepa’s rise has put Chelsea and Mendy in a slightly awkward situation. Reports last month suggested the club were keen to extend the ‘keeper’s contract – which expires in 2025 – but that he had turned down their initial offer.

Whether Chelsea choose to return with a new proposal, and whether Mendy would countenance signing it given he now finds himself on the bench, remains to be seen.

But Potter is likely to put those concerns to one side and instead relish having a goalkeeper in Kepa that is helping to establish the defensive solidity that has underpinned so much of Chelsea’s past success.

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