Chelsea must be brutal and seek a replacement for misfit Arrizabalaga
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.
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