How did Kepa become the worst goalkeeper in the Premier League?

by Daniel Roodt

The struggles of Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga in recent seasons have been well-noted. The Spaniard who holds the world record for the highest transfer fee ever paid for a goalkeeper after his move to Chelsea in 2018 has now been replaced by Edouard Mendy who arrived from Rennes in the recent transfer window.

However, Kepa hasn’t always been a bad goalkeeper. While he was not outstanding at Athletic Bilbao, the statistics indicate that he performed at a very decent level. He was certainly nowhere near to being one of the worst goalkeepers in the league, as he is right now.

Kepa Arrizabalaga poses with a Chelsea shirt following his world-record move to the English capital in 2018.

So, how did a world-record fee fetching goalkeeper go from extremely competent to being statistically the worst goalkeeper in the league?

The best place to start is to examine his post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded (PSxG +/-) in the past few seasons. Post-expected goals is a metric that predicts the likelihood of a goal being scored, once the shot has been taken. This is a good way of analysing goalkeepers, as it does not matter how good their defence is. It only takes into account the quality of the shot once it has been taken and does not include any own goals scored.

In Kepa’s last season at Athletic Bilbao, his PSxG +/- was +2.9, which indicates that he saved 2.9 more goals than he was expected to. While this is not an elite number, it is extremely respectable. He was also only 22 at the time, so he had a lot of time to develop and improve this number. For context, David De Gea’s PSxG +/- stood at +7.9 in 2017/18 which was considered by many as one of his best seasons ever.

However, his form rapidly declined after he arrived in London. In 2018/19 he wasn’t dreadful, but his PSxG +/- was -1.4. But it was last season (2019/20), where he hit rock bottom. He ended up conceding 9.5 more goals than he was expected to save, which was the biggest underperformance in the Premier League that season.

Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he didn’t improve this season. He conceded six goals in three starts which were 1.2 more than he was expected to. His poor performances from last season and at the beginning of this season led to Chelsea buying Edouard Mendy from Rennes to replace the error-prone Kepa.

According to Transfermarkt, Arrizabalaga has not suffered an injury since he moved to Chelsea in 2018, which indicates that his performance is not necessarily a physical issue. Furthermore, he is at a top club, and will no doubt have access to world-class doctors, sports scientists and physiotherapists to ensure that he is in peak physical condition.

There also haven’t been any other health issues reported. While there is a possibility that there is a health issue that is being kept confidential, this is unlikely for two reasons. The first is that he would have had to complete a thorough medical before he was able to complete his transfer to Chelsea in 2018.

The second is that players at top clubs undergo regular health and fitness checks. According to Dave Fevre, a member of the Football Medical Association up to the age of 24 players should have annual checks regarding their heart. Kepa recently turned 26 at the start of October, which means that he would have been subject to multiple heart checkups during his time in London. Therefore, it seems unlikely that his poor performances are a result of health issues.

All of this points to Kepa’s problems being linked to something psychological. If an athlete has mental health problems, this can severely impact their performance, even if they are physically capable of completing that task.

One study regarding mental health in athletes stated: “An athlete’s mental health needs are as important as their physical health needs, and that both are likely to contribute to optimising the athlete’s overall wellbeing in conjunction with performance excellence.” It went to say that athletes suffer from mental health issues at a similar rate to the general public.

However, these issues seem to be ignored by clubs and fans alike. Former England goalkeeper, Ben Foster said, “I think the mental side of the game is 50 percent, and the coaching and football side of it is 50 percent, but the mental side is completely neglected.”

Furthermore, there are claims that his long-term girlfriend left him earlier this year, which has had a significant impact on his performance. Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported in February “He's suffering quite badly. His partner went with him to London when he left his former club Athletic Bilbao and had been his rock until the relation ended.”

The split up with his girlfriend, coupled with underwhelming performances, seems to have been the cause of his lack of confidence. It is this lack of confidence that has such a significant impact on his performances, which were so poor, that he was dropped from the team.

A dejected Kepa after scoring a comical own-goal against Ajax in the Champions League last season, where the ball ricocheted off the post into his face and then into the goal. Incidents like this have likely contributed to his loss of confidence.

His performances have been poor, and he has been unable to improve on them, which has had a significant impact on his confidence, which has led to his performances getting worse. He is a player clearly devoid of confidence, and the decision to replace him was undoubtedly the right one.

Where he goes from here is the big question. He likely will not get another chance at Chelsea, unless Edouard Mendy picks up a serious injury. At 26, he still has a lot of time left in his career, and will likely not be keen on warming the bench at Chelsea.

This opens up the possibility of him moving away from the English capital, which could prove challenging due to his large wages and transfer fee. However, wherever he goes, the main thing is for him to improve his mental health and his confidence issues, so he can rediscover the form that made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of the game.

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