It was not supposed to turn out this way when Chelsea, under pressure to move quickly once Thibaut Courtois had forced his way to Real Madrid, made Kepa Arrizabalaga the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, in August 2018.
Arrizabalaga was not supposed to be a reserve when Chelsea triggered the £71.6m release clause in his contract at Athletic Bilbao. Going by the fee alone, it should be the Spaniard preparing to face Manchester City in his first Champions League final this month. No one spends that much on a goalkeeper with the intention of using him mainly in the FA Cup and, if everything had gone to plan, it would have been Arrizabalaga performing heroics to deny Karim Benzema when Courtois returned to Stamford Bridge with Madrid last week.
Yet the 26-year-old’s diminished role is not much of a controversy any more. Barring injury it will be Édouard Mendy, a £22m signing from Rennes last September, who starts against City. There is no doubt over Mendy’s role as Thomas Tuchel’s No 1. The Senegal international has been a calm presence, whereas misfortune has tended to follow Arrizabalaga around.
It was hard not to feel for Arrizabalaga when he had to set off in pursuit of Jorginho’s wayward backpass during Chelsea’s defeat by Arsenal on Wednesday. He prevented an own goal but Emile Smith Rowe still scored. Arrizabalaga had conceded a comical goal through no fault of his own, ruining a rare start in the league, and he will certainly hope for more care from his teammates if – as expected – he starts when Chelsea meet Leicester in Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley.
It is a huge game for Arrizabalaga. Three years ago he was one of the most promising goalkeepers around. Chelsea were sufficiently impressed to part with a considerable sum to buy him and there was no reason to suspect his fall from grace would be so dramatic after a decent first year in the Premier League.
The problems began when Frank Lampard replaced Maurizio Sarri in 2019. Playing behind a disorganised defence, Arrizabalaga looked uncertain at crosses and his shaky distribution invited unnecessary pressure. Even more worryingly, he became an easy target for opposition strikers. Even the most hopeful shots seemed to find a way of sneaking past Arrizabalaga, who saved only 54.5% of efforts on target last season.
Looking at those numbers, it is easy to see why Lampard was unconvinced. Arrizabalaga was dropped in February 2020 and although he regained his place after Project Restart, he could not keep the errors at bay. Willy Caballero, the veteran Argentinian, started when Chelsea lost last season’s FA Cup final to Arsenal.
The writing appeared to be on the wall. Lampard pushed for a new goalkeeper and asked for Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak. Yet the numbers were tricky. It was difficult for Chelsea to find anyone capable of affording Arrizabalaga, who signed a seven-year deal in 2018.
Although Arrizabalaga was a source of tension between Lampard and a board hoping to see a big investment pay off, a compromise was required. When Mendy arrived he was not guaranteed to be first choice. Arrizabalaga had a chance to fight for his place.
Yet it didn’t work out. Arrizabalaga was at fault for Brighton’s goal when Chelsea won their opening league game at the Amex Stadium and he capitulated in a defeat by Liverpool a week later, gifting Sadio Mané a terrible goal by passing straight to the forward.
Arrizabalaga, who has made six league appearances this season, could do nothing right. He became a target of ridicule on social media and changed his Twitter settings to ensure that strangers could not reply to his posts. Those were difficult moments and Arrizabalaga looked edgy when he did make it on to the pitch. He produced a mixed display when he started Lampard’s final game, the 3-1 win over Luton in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Lampard was sacked less than 24 hours later and Arrizabalaga had hope of a fresh start when Tuchel arrived. Although Mendy remains first choice, there have been opportunities. Tuchel has recognised the need to work with Arrizabalaga. The manager has used him in the FA Cup and rewarded his efforts with starts against Arsenal, Brighton and Newcastle in the league.
Perhaps it is not over yet, even if Arrizabalaga is unlikely to make the Spain squad at Euro 2020. He hardly looked short of belief when he enraged Sarri by refusing to come off before Chelsea’s penalty shootout defeat to City in the League Cup final in February 2019 and was a hero during the club’s victorious Europa League campaign later that season, making vital saves when Eintracht Frankfurt were beaten on penalties in the last four.
Perhaps this is a player who just needs an arm round the shoulder. Arrizabalaga certainly looked more settled when Chelsea won their semi-final against City last month, offering a reminder of his quality with a late save from a Rodri header. Now he needs to help Tuchel win his first trophy in England by standing firm against Leicester. A difficult season can still end on a high note.