Is Kepa Arrizabalaga back to his best at Chelsea, or a short-term solution?

Sport

Kepa Arrizabalaga has been here before: a new manager, a clean slate, the chance to start over. By now, after all the trials and tribulations, the Spaniard probably knows not to get ahead of himself.

It has been four years since Arrizabalaga turned up at Chelsea, all bristling confidence and youthful innocence as he insisted that becoming the world’s costliest goalkeeper was no big deal, and experience will tell him that his current run as a starter for Graham Potter is not something to take for granted.

It tends to be complicated when it comes to Arrizabalaga. The sense is that he has never quite escaped the pressure of Chelsea paying £71.6m to sign him from Athletic Bilbao. It is not merely that the money feels absurd given that Arrizabalaga has mainly been a reserve since losing his place to Édouard Mendy in 2020; it is also that the sheer finances involved with the Spain international, whose transfer fee was accompanied by a lucrative seven-year deal, have put off clubs interested in loaning or buying him.

Who has benefited from the 28-year-old spending the past two years on the bench? Nobody can dispute that he should no longer be at Stamford Bridge, even if he will hope to make his sixth consecutive start when Chelsea visit Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday evening. He has spent too much time on the sidelines and if the pieces had fallen differently last summer then Arrizabalaga could well have found himself playing for Napoli this season.

It has been frustrating for Arrizabalaga, whose decline began when Frank Lampard replaced Maurizio Sarri in 2019. He stayed professional after losing his place to Mendy, but was the trust ever there? Thomas Tuchel stuck with Mendy after replacing Lampard in January 2021. Arrizabalaga was the cup goalkeeper – and even then there were people who would tell Tuchel to start his No 1 when Chelsea were in a final.

That argument was given strength by Arrizabalaga being beaten too easily by Youri Tielemans when Chelsea lost the FA Cup final against Leicester in 2021. It informed Tuchel’s thinking. Last season Arrizabalaga was the hero when Chelsea won penalty shootouts against Villarreal in the Super Cup final and Southampton and Aston Villa in the EFL Cup, but there was no disrupting the established order whenever a final arrived.

The situation felt unsustainable when Arrizabalaga was named on the bench for the finals of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Club World Cup last season. Yet there was no movement. The change was Mendy’s loss of form. Mendy went through a torrid spell at the start of the season, making handling errors and stumbling with the ball at his feet, and the timing has worked against the Senegal goalkeeper, who was injured when Potter replaced Tuchel last month.

Arrizabalaga has stepped up. He excelled when Chelsea won 2‑1 against Crystal Palace this month and made a vital contribution when Potter’s side crushed Milan 3-0 last week, denying Charles De Ketelaere an equaliser just before half-time.

Perhaps being out of the limelight helped Arrizabalaga. Previously he looked vulnerable against every shot from long range. He is 6ft 1in and experts felt that his deep starting position was preventing him from getting across his goal quickly enough. Inevitably Arrizabalaga’s statistics deteriorated and he was reluctant to tweak his approach at first, telling coaches at Chelsea that he was not ready to change his game while he was going through the worst moment of his career.

He needed time and space. With Mendy playing every week, Arrizabalaga was able to work on his positioning and the experts eventually saw an improvement. Of course it is too early to declare that the turnaround is complete, especially as Potter is yet to settle on his first‑choice goalkeeper. Chelsea’s new head coach will use Mendy and has not committed himself to Arrizabalaga, even though the latter’s superior distribution currently appears to have given him the edge.

There are still doubts over Arrizabalaga. Has he truly cut out his habit of letting soft shots squirm through his body? Can he command his area? Is his kicking really good enough under sustained pressure? It is telling that, with Mendy stalling over a new deal, Chelsea are considering signing a goalkeeper next summer.

Potter will have to be ruthless. Arrizabalaga will be itching to take on Milan at San Siro, to rise to the occasion and silence his critics, but the sense remains that the story of his Chelsea career is almost over. He has it all to do if he is to rewrite the narrative and prove he can be the long-term solution for Potter.