The arrival of Kepa Arrizabalaga seems to have been Chelsea’s planned primary target all along. After a summer of upheaval surrounding the future of Thibaut Courtois the club acted swiftly in looking for a replacement within 72 hours when Courtois went on strike to force a move through to Real Madrid. They quickly moved to sign Athletic Bilbao’s Spanish goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga for a £72m deal which saw him become the world’s most expensive goalkeeper beating out Alisson Becker’s transfer to Liverpool a few weeks earlier at £52m. Chelsea had been linked with a number of goalkeepers across Europe this summer with the impending departure of the Belgian shot stopper, including: Jan Oblak, Jack Butland, Kasper Schmeichel, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Petr Cech and Jordan Pickford. So it comes as a surprise when French goalkeeper Alphonse Areola was never mentioned. The Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) shot-stopper was part of three top class keepers at the Parisian club this summer after they signed legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. With Buffon set to start, one of Kevin Trapp and Areola had to look elsewhere for access to more playing time. Trapp eventually opted to re-join Eintract Frankfurt on loan after falling down to third in the pecking order, leaving Areola and Buffon as the two goalkeepers battle it out for the number one jersey.
It could have been a very different summer for both Chelsea and Alphonse Areola had the move materialised. Would Areola have been a better signing than Kepa had Chelsea opted for the French goalkeeper or have they made the right decision by going with the Spaniard?
Both Areola and Kepa had a similar route to the first team at PSG and Athletic Bilbao respectively. Kepa took his first steps into senior football at fourth-tier feeder club Basconia before representing Bilbao Athletic – the Basque club’s B team. Loan spells at second-tier Ponferradina and Real Valladolid, where he gained more valuable experience. His return to Bilbao served him well as he became the club’s first-choice goalkeeper under Ernesto Valverde.
Playing for Athletic Bilbao comes with its own challenges. Playing in La Liga against the upper echelon clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Valencia, Kepa is exposed to high calibre opponents. His preference to play accurate long balls has served him well but it’s his impressive shot-stopping abilities that have earned the plaudits. While comfortable with the ball at his feet, Arrizabalaga is still improving and will need to become more proficient to align himself with Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy of building from the back.
Alphonse Areola began life at INF Clairefontaine before moving to PSG in 2009. The French goalkeeper was regarded as the club’s long term project. He progressed through the loan system over the past nine years moving to Lens, Bastia and Villareal where he excelled. Upon his return to PSG, Areola quickly established himself as the clubs first-choice goalkeeper for the 2016/2017 season. An extremely proficient shot stopper with a decent command of aerially, Areola has battled through Salvatore Sirigu and Nicholas Douchez and dethroned Kevin Trapp to claim the number one jersey. His persistence and perseverance has been his strongest qualities but it begs the question as to which goalkeeper is the right fit for Chelsea?
Alphonse Areola v Kepa Arrizabalaga
We will compare both goalkeepers on three key aspects: passing and distribution, command of the area and positioning. Chelsea head coach, Maurizio Sarri likes his goalkeepers to play out from the back. He keeps a high defensive line making use of them as sweeper keepers. At Napoli, he used Pepe Reina effectively but he was occasionally caught out by quicker forwards. Kepa is not a natural sweeper keeper but will be asked to play that role. Chelsea moved for Kepa because of his decision-making abilities allowing his transition to playing a sweeper keeper much smoother.
With passing and distribution a key component of ‘Sarri-ball’, his goalkeepers should be adept at the short passing game. Kepa’s average distribution length is 43m compared to Areola’s 23m. The French keeper seems more adept to playing the short passing game into the centre backs than Kepa. This directly coincides with their passing completion rates; Kepa completes 65% of his passes per 90 minutes with Areola a near perfect 91%. Playing for Athletic Bilbao, Kepa was likely asked to play more long balls, playing direct football over a quicker passing game building from the back. Alphonse Areola plays for a club that has the personnel to play a more technical, passing game giving him more options to pass to. Be it Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti or Layvin Kurzawa.
We can see here Kepa’s preference to go through route one than play the short passing option even against similar quality opposition. Transitioning from an orthodox goalkeeper to a sweeper keeper will take time to develop.
Against Bournemouth, Kepa has been given multiple passing options and by picking a lob pass to César Azpilicueta shows his tendency to find one of the men closest to him.
King of the Box
Command of the penalty box is a trait that all goalkeepers must be proficient at in order to defend against teams with natural crossers of the ball. With the majority of teams setup to push their wing backs forward or wingers wide to supply crosses, it makes it imperative for goalkeepers to become strong in the air. Looking at their average punches, catches and saves, we can see Arrizabalaga boasts a significantly higher success rate.
Athletic Bilbao faced more shots by the virtue of being a mid-table team who aren’t as defensively strong as the other top clubs in La Liga. This has exposed Arrizabalaga to pressure situations every week which has enabled him to withstand and control a barrage of shots towards him. Lower tier Premier League teams will resort to long balls and crosses to breakdown Chelsea’s defence making this an important aspect to note.
However, Areola has managed to do well against top quality opposition by keeping four clean sheets out of eight in last season’s Champions League making 2.50 saves per game but has been criticised for his vulnerabilities from crosses and balls in to the box.
This brings us to my next point, ‘Sarri-ball’ requires the goalkeeper to have exceptional positioning. With a high defensive line, Chelsea will be vulnerable to counter attacks especially during the early parts of the season when they’re still settling into the new system. Kepa’s role at the Basque club was more static with a defensive line playing with a low block especially against the top clubs keeping him in and around his penalty area.
Areola played a similar position the French goalkeeper was prone to facing more shots because of the tactics employed by former head coach, Unai Emery. Paris Saint-Germain played with a 4-3-3 with the full backs pushing forward and a midfield trio of Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot. With only Thiago Silva and Marquinhos ahead of Areola, PSG’s defence was often exposed making Areola’s positioning vital.
As we can see, Kepa stayed on his line while Areola’s initial position is much closer to the striker.
As we can see here, Areola has successfully closed down the attacker with a perfectly timed challenge to clear the danger.
One For The Ages
Kepa Arrizabalaga and Alphonse Areola are very talented goalkeepers who have bright futures. Areola has had to work hard for his first team position at the Parisian club after nine years of loans and being promoted from backup goalkeeper to a valuable first choice asset last season. He possesses more experience at the highest level and is two years older than the Spaniard and there is a feeling amongst Europe’s elite that Kepa has more potential to grow and potentially become the next Iker Casillas.
“He has some things that he knows he has to improve,” said Valverde in 2017, after Kepa had helped Athletic qualify for Europe. “But he is a goalkeeper with good reflexes, a great presence and a great confidence that he transmits to others.” In November 2017, he made his senior debut for Spain in a 5-0 win over Costa Rica. The Spanish goalkeeper has the height advantage over Areola and is an incredible shot-stopper. Not only did he save two of the three penalties that he faced in La Liga last season but he produced 64 saves from inside the penalty area – the third most of any goalkeeper in the competition.
Alphonse Areola may have been a more obvious choice based on his experience and attributes but Kepa has more room for development and growth. A willingness to learn, the young goalkeeper has already improved in his four games for Chelsea and after being handed a seven year contract, the Blues will be hoping to see a return on their investment and become one the best goalkeepers in Europe emulating Petr Cech.