It would take a valiant search party to find any Chelsea supporters still yearning for the ashen glare of Maurizio Sarri, but how their forgotten goalkeeper must treasure those days when he wore his pride and indignation like a suit of armour. It is almost two years since Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted in the Carabao Cup final, the cramp in his legs no match for the strength of his ego. But while it is tempting to paint that moment of defiance as the beginning of Kepa’s premature dereliction, it was in fact an exhibition in the qualities he is now so sorely deprived: an outrageous sense of self-belief and a brazen intent to seize his own destiny rather than watch it slip – again – between his fingers. His act of mutiny might have created a faultline, but no player once worth £71m is shaken of his conviction overnight.
Yet, it is not hard to sense the sad inevitability that now haunts the world’s most expensive goalkeeper – a reputation he lugs like a ball and chain. His most recent appearance, in what turned out to be Frank Lampard’s final game against Luton, did nothing to alleviate that gloom; a fairly routine shot trickling beneath the Spaniard’s fingertips, as though fate were brushing him by. It was, without any pleasure, a fitting end to Kepa’s time under a Lampard; a period in which his series of mistakes and public scapegoating saw that bullish confidence steadily disintegrate, much like the frayed ends of the cigarette butt chewed by Sarri at Wembley.
It might not be possible to ignore the scars and wipe that slate clean, but Thomas Tuchel’s arrival does at least offer Kepa a route out of his purgatory. The new coach has repeatedly made clear that every player is starting from a ground zero and Kepa will no doubt be buoyed by the re-emergence of similarly ostracised teammates. He is expected to start tonight against Barnsley in the FA Cup fifth round. All too often, his hands have betrayed him. Now he has a true second chance – or last chance – if only he can seize it.
“It’s very important for me to say this: he doesn’t have to overachieve,” Tuchel said ahead of tonight’s tie. “I want him to play a normal match tomorrow. He does not have to show me or anybody else tomorrow he is ready to be Spain’s number one in the summer. He just has to show his quality. Not more or less. So we have to manage expectations because I don’t expect him to score and keep a clean sheet. I just want him to help us with his quality and for him to give a solid performance to help the team. He has big goals to achieve and big personal ambition. But this is normal; it’s why he’s here.”
If that sounds a little too hopeful, perhaps it is. Edouard Mendy, while not arriving with the grandeur of Lampard’s preferred target, Jan Oblak, has barely put a foot wrong since Tuchel’s arrival. And in all likelihood, Kepa is destined to spend the next few months rooted to the bench. He is, in a sense, a hostage of his own premature rise and fall; his wages too great a risk for others to bear on loan; his value too precarious to be allowed to plummet any further. The reality is that a player not long ago touted to become one of the world’s best will remain trapped in stasis, another feature in football’s talent stockpile, only becoming further removed from that old version of himself.
“No goalkeeper wants to sit on the bench, I understand that,” Tuchel continued. “The situation for Kepa is the situation he finds right now. We didn’t make a change in the first games and Edou was strong in the moment. From the outside he had maybe some difficulties on the sporting side, and maybe also the circumstances of his transfer were a little bit on his shoulders. That was the impression from outside. From inside I see a nice guy, I see a nice personality, an open personality, a hard-working guy, with obviously a lot of quality. So the good thing for him is that we start new, it’s a new start for him.”
But while Kepa’s fate is the product of his own two hands, there is surely a lesson there, too. Primarily, in an age where players are swamped by such relentless criticism, it is about protection. Knowing accurately the precariousness of his own position, Lampard ultimately made his dissatisfaction with Kepa clear in public; something that might have already been obvious but only enhanced the glare. It is one thing to be besieged from the outside and another entirely to feel untrusted by those you’re fighting with. Nor is it any surprise that Chelsea’s hierarchy became disgruntled by Lampard’s treatment of the goalkeeper, too, when they’d hoped a nurturing approach might yet resurrect the price of their investment.
From the moment Lampard lessened his guard, he inadvertently left Kepa at the mercy of others. For every goal Chelsea conceded, it was Kepa who was first examined and accused. For pundits and fans, it became something close to a feeding frenzy. Of course, when boasting the league’s worst save percentage, those waves of criticism are already forthcoming. But they take on a new form of menace when surrounding someone from all sides. On social media, Kepa has now blocked comments to try and stem the tide.
After splitting from his partner, the 26-year-old has spent the pandemic in relative solitude in another country where he has often been made to feel unwanted. When that is put into context, alongside the standards he no doubt demands of himself, it is not so surprising that the weight of one slip transformed into an interminable slide.
It is hardly a unique event, particularly in a week when social media companies have been fiercely condemned after several instances of racist abuse, homophobic comments and death threats. But, even if it should not be the case, that only increases the importance of a club or its coaches providing a last line of defence. Without it, there will be many more players left in free fall. Most will not have the same talent as Kepa to pick themselves back up. He has youth and stature on his side. But the audacity and self-belief he displayed at Wembley are what underlines a player’s ability. Beneath that suit of armour lies a more vulnerable person left questioning his own instincts, and surely there is more to blame than simply his own fingers for that.