Chelsea must be bru­tal and seek a re­place­ment for mis­fit Ar­riz­a­bal­aga

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - Chief Foot­ball Writer

Lampard has to take a stand on a player who was made the world’s most ex­pen­sive keeper

There are no easy answers in the case of Kepa Ar­riz­a­bal­aga, the goal­keeper Chelsea signed for a record-break­ing fee two years ago and who has turned out to be the wrong man at the wrong club for the wrong amount of time – seven years to be pre­cise, and still five to go.

Another goal con­ceded on Tues­day night from Wil­fried Zaha that, while by no means a sim­ple save, was one that a goal­keeper of the stan­dard Chelsea had in the past would ex­pect to stop. A goal to file away with all those oth­ers he has pawed into the net, or sim­ply not re­acted swiftly enough to save. There have been fewer of the calami­ties that can de­stroy a goal­keeper’s rep­u­ta­tion in an in­stant but in­creas­ingly the sta­tis­tics bear out that awk­ward ques­tion: when is he go­ing to make those saves that change matches?

The 25-year-old’s save per­cent­age as mea­sured by Opta is 56.7 per cent, the low­est in the di­vi­sion by some con­sid­er­able dis­tance. The next is Pepe Reina on 62.5 per cent and the next first-team reg­u­lar is Jor­dan Pick­ford on 63 per cent. Ar­riz­a­bal­aga does not look any bet­ter on the new mea­sure­ment of “goals pre­vented” in which Opta at­tempts to mea­sure the per­for­mance of a goal­keeper rel­a­tive to the num­ber and qual­ity of the at­tempts on his goal. In other words, how many times does a goal­keeper save one of those near-to-cer­tain to end up in the net? In that cat­e­gory Ar­riz­a­bal­aga is also last among the Pre­mier League first-team reg­u­lars.

When the data looks bad it forces other fac­tors to the fore­front that might oth­er­wise be over­looked. For in­stance, is he tall enough? And, of even greater con­cern to Frank Lampard, is his first-choice goal­keeper get­ting worse? Ar­riz­a­bal­aga’s save per­cent­age last sea­son was 11.1 per cent bet­ter than it has been in 2019-20. Goal­keep­ers present one of the most delicate chal­lenges for man­agers, where the op­tions for re­build­ing con­fi­dence can feel like try­ing to re­pair a stained-glass win­dow with a fork­lift truck. Once the bond is bro­ken it is gone for­ever, and hav­ing left Ar­riz­a­bal­aga out al­ready in Fe­bru­ary, in favour of sec­ond­choice Willy Ca­ballero, it feels like most of the cards have been played by Lampard. With­out a goal­keeper in which there is con­fi­dence, no side can move for­ward.

The search for a great goal­keeper is, by the na­ture of the po­si­tion and the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that it ex­poses, of­ten bru­tal – yet it is also a process that shapes a suc­cess­ful team and re­minds them of the stan­dards re­quired. They are ei­ther good enough or they are not. That was the case in the great Manch­ester United teams of Sir Alex Fer­gu­son, in which the suc­ces­sion from one long-serv­ing goal­keeper to the next was of­ten marked by a brief in­ter­reg­num of li­a­bil­i­ties who re­minded all con­cerned of the dam­age a sub-par goal­keeper could do. Manch­ester City and Liver­pool have each ousted first­team goal­keep­ers in the past two years be­fore alight­ing on those who met their stan­dards. That Chelsea sailed serenely through the best part of 16 years with Petr Cech and then Thibaut Cour­tois said a lot about the qual­ity of that pair and the club’s plan­ning for suc­ces­sion. They might have made it three in a row had they not de­layed fa­tally over the sign­ing of Alisson from Roma as the de­par­ture of Cour­tois was fi­nalised, al­low­ing Liver­pool to in­ter­vene and make a vi­tal sign­ing.

Now comes Lampard’s chal­lenge, to take a stand on a player who, two sum­mers ago, Ma­rina Gra­novskaia, Chelsea’s key fig­ure af­ter Ro­man Abramovich, made the world’s most ex­pen­sive goal­keeper. It would be too sim­ple to say that Ar­riz­a­bal­aga is not Lampard’s player and there­fore not his con­cern when the ca­chet of his boss is en­twined with the suc­cess or oth­er­wise of this sign­ing. Jose Mour­inho faces much the same is­sue with Tan­guy Ndombele at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur, a record sign­ing made by Daniel Levy, and whose fail­ure will also be laid at the door of the chair­man.

Chelsea have mis­spent money be­fore in the trans­fer mar­ket but it is the length of the seven-year con­tract given to Ar­riz­a­bal­aga which makes this par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic. It was done in part so that his cost could be amor­tised over the length of his con­tract, which helps with fi­nan­cial fair play reg­u­la­tions. Even so, in the Covid era the like­li­hood of achiev­ing a lower break-even fee on the books seems re­mote in­deed.

So too the time when £70 mil­lion would be spent on a goal­keeper who, at the time, had played only 53 top-flight games. There have al­ways been mis­takes in the mar­ket, and val­u­a­tions that have gone badly awry but the lat­i­tude for these kinds of er­rors is much di­min­ished. Most Pre­mier League clubs are de­lay­ing their big moves in the win­dow on the ba­sis that they will have a clearer idea of the fi­nan­cial pic­ture closer to its pro­posed end on Oct 5.

Chelsea have been an ex­cep­tion this sum­mer, although with the con­text of not hav­ing made a ma­jor sign­ing in the past two win­dows.

Ar­riz­a­bal­aga presents a unique chal­lenge, their most ex­pen­sive sign­ing, who – two years in – seems to be de­clin­ing rather than im­prov­ing at a cru­cial mo­ment in the devel­op­ment of a new team. They could just sol­dier on, blame the eco­nomic cir­cum­stances and try to make the world’s most ex­pen­sive goal­keeper look the part. His­tory tells them that the most suc­cess­ful teams of the era have tended to­wards do­ing the op­po­site and look­ing for a bet­ter so­lu­tion, how­ever painful that might be in the short-term.

% 20 40 60 80 Ex­pen­sive prob­lem: Kepa Ar­riz­a­bal­aga was handed a seven-year con­tract by Chelsea

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