Whilst Chelsea started their season with a loss versus Manchester City in the Community Shield, much of the attention was on Blues’ transfer market. The acquisition of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga stole the light, becoming Maurizio Sarri’s most expensive acquisition at Stamford Bridge.
In fact, Kepa’s arrival from Athletic Bilbao set a new transfer record for a goalkeeper with Chelsea that paid Kepa’s 80 million of euros buyout to own the service of the 23-year-old, overcoming the previous record of 75 million of euros paid by Liverpool to buy former Roma’s keeper Alisson.
Although the fee for Kepa is very high for a no.1 that was capped just once by Spain, is important to remember that purchase prices are determined by the market and they not necessarily reflect a player’s true value.
In this case, Chelsea found themselves with a goalkeeper need, few hours until the transfer deadline. So, rather than risk a tough negotiation, the Blues opted to pay Kepa’s release clause in order to replace the outgoing Thibaut Courtois at Samford Bridge.
That’s about the price. But what from a technical and tactical analysis point of view? What kind of keeper Chelsea brought on?
Right now, Kepa isn’t a veteran as he has made just 53 appearances for Athletic Bilbao, keeping seven clean sheets last campaign. That said, Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri gave a positive thought on this move.
“I saw him one year ago. My first impression was that he is a very good goalkeeper, very young, but very, very good,” Sarri recently told reporters. Surely, talent is here: Kepa almost made a move to Real Madrid last January for just 20 million, but the deal was blocked by Zinedine Zidane as the Frenchman manager was happy with the then goalkeeping duo of Kaylor Navas and Kiko Casillas.
Labelled as the most promising goalkeeper in Spanish football, Kepa was a member of Under-21 Spain that lost to Germany in the final of 2017 European Championship and he also has been part of the Spain roster at the 2018 World Cup as third keeper, behind David De Gea and Pepe Reina.
That said, Kepa was average last season in La Liga when it comes to expected goals and expected saves although he was one of the best shot-stoppers in the 2016/17.
His strengths rely on reflexes and on his ability to command the penalty box. Kepa also owns a good level of agility and body control that made him decent enough when it comes to go out from the posts on his own. Another of the main reasons Chelsea paid so much to sign him is Kepa’s decision-making that made him attracting interest at the Santiago Bernabeu and that make him a potential no.1 for the forthcoming seasons.
According to the stats, Kepa resulted to be in the Top-10 when it comes to saves with an average of 3.4 per game. And only 2 keepers made more saves from shots inside the penalty area than Kepa (59) last La Liga season.
The below graphics taken by the ever useful InStat is showing us how the new Chelsea keeper’s saves per game are better than the ones posted by Thibaut Courtois (2.4) and Alisson Becker (3), the Liverpool’s Brazilian netminder that previously and for few weeks hold the record of the highest paid goalkeeper in the world.
Another key aspect of Kepa’s game, one that could mean Sarri’s interest on him, is the Spaniard ability to play with the ball at his feet. Former Arsenal, West Ham and Watford keeper Manuel Almunia compared Kepa’s technical skills to Luis Arconada’s abilities with the ball. Arconada is a former no.1 with Real Sociedad and Spain.
Sarri’s system needs a goalkeeper involved in the game, able to play the ball with his feet. That’s exactly what Sarri had with Pepe Reina in Napoli.
Already from goal-kicks, Napoli’s players were lined up in the way to give Reina a lot of passing lines to provide him options both on depth and width. It allowed Napoli to manipulate the opposition’s defensive structure already before the ball was played. Furthermore, it helped Sarri’s team against opposite’s high-pressure as Reina was utilised as safety valve to link the strong side with the weak side, avoiding the rivals’ pressure.
The first lines offering passing lines to Reina were those built around the centre-backs and Jorginho. So, is possible that Sarri will build a similar quadrilateral at Chelsea, with Kepa at the bottom and Jorginho at the top and with centre-backs David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger spread open. Kepa will play short passes especially against rivals not pressing high up. Instead, should the opposition press up front, preventing David Luiz, Jorginho and Rudiger from getting the ball, Kepa still got the ability to play longer passes in order to avoid this eventual tight man-marking.
In this case, a reliable option at Kepa’s disposal is the one that involves Marcos Alonso with the Spaniard left-back being particularly able to win head to head duels in the way to provide Chelsea affordable second balls.
Furthermore, a goalkeeper in Sarri’s building up system can still rely on the interior midfielders, should both centre-backs and Jorginho tightly marked. This pass provide Sarri’s side to get immediate access to the half-spaces with the interior midfielders being able to play a back pass to Jorginho or to the near full-back, should they be pressed, or to get the wingers immediately involved in the way to positionally occupy the final third of the field.
So, a first pass from Kepa put Chelsea in position to create strong connections between the Blues’ players, giving the ball carrier some strong passing line that allow Sarri’s team to bypass opposition’s pressure through linking play. It also allows them to build a safer possession.
Kepa Arrizabalaga was given a baptism of fire against Huddersfield, a team that can rely on a strong play in the air, but the new Chelsea’s keeper was able to keep his first Premer League clean sheet. True to be told, the most expensive no.1 in history enjoyed a comfortable debut as the Terriers have rarely been dangerous up front. Maybe, in that occasion, Kepa should have made better in controlling the box.
That said, in general Kepa couldn’t show his great agility and reflexes. Only real scoring chance for David Wagner’s men occurred when a Steve Mounie’s header hit the post. Kepa’s distribution has been a bit suspect as the Spaniard was inaccurate with some of his long-range passes: he posted a total of 65.8% in pass accuracy, all passes included.
Premier League season is just started so time will say if Kepa’s acquisition was a panic move or a calculate and paying off investment.