How do you solve a problem like Kepa Arrizabalaga?
When Chelsea panicked and paid £71million for the Spain stopper in 2018, they did so believing that he was their best option to replace Thibaut Courtois following his defection to Real Madrid.
Three years and three managers’ later, the 26 year-old has been more of a problem than a solution.
In making Kepa the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at the age of 23, Chelsea were paying to cement the position between the sticks for the next decade.
Such joined-up thinking had previously been in place with regards the ascension of relatively young goalkeepers twice under Jose Mourinho: first when Petr Cech replaced Carlo Cudicini as No.1 after Euro 2004, and then when Cech himself was replaced by Courtois when he returned from three years on loan at Atletico Madrid in 2014.
However, after being backed into a corner by Courtois due to his contract situation and a desire to join Real Madrid, the Blues paid over the odds to exercise the release clause in Kepa’s contract at Athletic Bilbao.
Over time, that decision has been one increasingly difficult to justify, other than ‘well they needed someone’.
Fast forward to the present, and having seen technical director Petr Cech and former head coach Frank Lampard run out of patience with his errors and failure to command, Edouard Mendy arrived in the summer to be the new No.1.
Mendy has since made the place his own, leading to increased speculation that Kepa, with little interest in being second choice, will want out if that status quo continues. Lampard has gone and Kepa is now Thomas Tuchel’s issue.
Part of the German’s remit upon arriving at Stamford Bridge in January was to reinvigorate big-money summer signings Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech. He has also wiped the slate clean for a number of players seemingly on their way out under his predecessor, including Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso.
Seemingly, the same goes for Kepa.
From a position under Lampard that was irreversible, he followed up a smart showing in the FA Cup against Barnsley – his first start under Tuchel – by surprisingly being given the nod ahead of Mendy against Newcastle in the Premier League on Monday night.
Heck, if you’re going to start him in any league game, at home to the division’s fifth-worst attack (in xG terms) without its leading goalscorer, who accounts for 40 percent of their goals, is the ideal scenario. It was a damning indictment of Steve Bruce's Toon side.
Asked ahead of the FA Cup tie at Oakwell if Kepa can turn around his situation at Chelsea, Tuchel replied: “Absolutely. Today, I absolutely believe this.”
This is Tuchel, a man who left each of his last three jobs – at Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain – having fallen out with higher ups, playing the political game.
Managing upwards has always been his biggest problem; it's why four months after leading PSG to the Champions League Final, he found himself cast aside in France.
Undoubtedly, there is boardroom pressure to keep Kepa involved, to keep his transfer value as high as possible.
He is a player whom director Marina Granovskaia – the real power at Stamford Bridge with the direct line to owner Roman Abramovich – has taken a personal interest in, even taking time out a break last summer to have a heart-to-heart with to offer support.
But don't be fooled into thinking that her decision is down to emotion. Far from it.
Granovskaia’s cold-blooded focus however is fundamentally on maximising his value however ahead of a potential sale. The more he is out of the lineup, the more he resembles a spare part as he sits on the sidelines, the greater the depreciation.
Gary Neville said on Monday Night Football: “I think the club will probably say 'we want you to get the best out of these players we've paid a fortune for' – so that might be part of the brief on the way in.”
He also added: "I have to say he looked well short of what a top goalkeeper would be the last time we saw him and honestly I thought he would be replaced and gone forever."
However, replacing him is one thing, getting rid is an altogether greater problem.
Kepa signed a seven-year deal worth potentially £70million and that isn’t even halfway through. Should Chelsea try to sell him, they need a buyer.
But where do you find one? Assume Chelsea are willing to take a 70 percent hit on their outlay, they’d still need someone to give them £20million-plus.
Then, you’ve got to persuade the player to move on and give up a lucrative contract, so a big chunk of any fee is cancelled out by paying up part of his deal to persuade him to move on; frankly, he’s not going to get anything like his current contract elsewhere. Combined, a permanent exit just isn’t going to happen right now.
For Tuchel, as he admitted last week, it's a balancing act.
"Of course, the club want the market value to stay or increase but for me it is pretty selfish, we want the guy in the best shape and we want the best competition in any position."
What he's also balancing of course, most importantly, is the need of his team. It's all well and good managing above and thinking about the balance sheet, but it's points on the pitch which will ultimately decide the German's long-term prospects.
On that score, it's so far, so good. With five wins in six games he's breathed new life into a squad that had plateaued under Lampard. They look exciting in attack and have conceded only once – an own goal – since his arrival.
And that helps him to publicly, and defiantly, respond to questions over his selection by declaring that Mendy very much remains first choice, even as Kepa is afforded a way back.
“Edou is the No.1, this is clear,” Tuchel told Sky Sports. “It was clear before the game and it stays like this.
“I am happy Kepa continued with a second clean sheet. It was the moment to let him feel the rhythm and build up his confidence.
“It was clear before that we hoped for the best performance, but Edou will be in goal from now on as he recovered physically and mentally and right now, he is the No.1.”
He likes the idea of a motivated Kepa keeping Mendy on his toes. However, from shaking his head before Neville had finished his question to the final "he is the No.1", he couldn't have been more clear.
Tuchel, the man infamous for raging against the machine, who declared in Paris that he felt more "a sports politician or sports minister than a coach" will play the game where Kepa and the powers-that-be are concerned.
He knows he needs to after all.
Sign up to the Mirror Football email here for the latest news and transfer gossip
Source: Read Full Article