A new year may bring fresh hope, but the same old problems were clear to see for Chelsea in their 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
A team seemingly stuck in transition and unable to fully adapt to the methods of head coach Graham Potter, Chelsea face a huge battle to even finish in the Premier League top four this season – their absolute minimum target.
Amid all the talk of a struggling attack (only eight other teams have scored fewer goals per game than Chelsea this season), and the need for further freshening up in other areas, the situation regarding the goalkeeping position has all of a sudden gone very quiet.
The opening of the transfer window in recent years, whether prior to the start of a new season or midway through, would lead to strong speculation surrounding the future of Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Not so much this time around, with the Spain international usurping Edouard Mendy since Potter’s arrival in September and performing steadily between the sticks in the four months since.
Indeed, it could be argued that Kepa has just about been Chelsea’s most consistent performer under Potter, albeit far from perfect in what has been a difficult period for the Blues.
Eight times Kepa has been used in the Premier League this season, each of those appearances coming after Thomas Tuchel’s departure, and he has kept a clean sheet in half of those matches.
To put that in some perspective, only Newcastle United’s Nick Pope – statistically the best keeper in the division this season – is keeping shutouts at a better rate, with Manchester United’s David de Gea and Aaron Ramsdale of Arsenal close behind.
Heading into the midweek round of fixtures, meanwhile, no goalkeeper could boast a better save percentage return than Kepa’s 83.3 among those to have played more than once, with Pope (80.7) the closest to him in that category.
While he perhaps could have done a little more to keep out some of the six goals he has conceded, Kepa has yet to commit an error leading to a goal in the Premier League this campaign, unlike De Gea, Mendy, Jordan Pickford (one each) and Hugo Lloris (a competition-leading three) among others.
High-profile errors were for a long time a hallmark of Kepa’s game. Not only that, the 28-year-old never seemed to be far from the headlines, a perfect case in point being a little under four years ago when refusing to leave the field after Maurizio Sarri tried to substitute him off in the EFL Cup final.
Three years later, in last season’s final at Wembley, it was Kepa’s missed spot-kick – the 22nd of a remarkable shoot-out – that led to Liverpool lifting the cup at Chelsea’s expense.
There have been plenty of highs and lows in between, but that City match in particular may well come to define Kepa’s time at Stamford Bridge, however long it is he remains at the club.
But now at a relative high point of his Chelsea career, the former Athletic Bilbao stopper will be out to prove himself once more when Chelsea and City face off twice in the space of three days this week.
It may well be that Potter opts to rotate for the second of those matches, an FA Cup third-round tie on Sunday, but Thursday’s league clash at Stamford Bridge will see Kepa get the nod.
He has a pretty mixed record against City in his five seasons as a Chelsea player, conceding 10 goals in five matches, albeit with six of those coming in a single game in the 2018-19 campaign, and has kept three clean sheets.
“I’m feeling very well, I’m feeling confident with and without the ball. I’m feeling like I’m helping the team when they need it, so I’m happy,” Kepa said in October after producing another fine display to keep out Brentford in a goalless draw.
“Of course, every player needs this confidence, this push, and I think for the goalkeeper it’s even more important when you have continuity. For a goalkeeper, when you’re not playing, in training it’s not the same. I have to keep going, I have to keep working.”
Keep working he has and, aided perhaps by a slice of luck owing to Mendy’s injury problems and reported off-the-field problems, Kepa is now Chelsea’s first choice until at least the end of the campaign, bar any surprise January moves.
And on the basis of the numbers alone, there is no real reason why Chelsea should look to change in that department in the long term. Of all goalkeepers in the Premier League this term, only Liverpool’s Alison (8.4) has prevented more goals than Kepa on 4.1 – rising to 5.1 when excluding own goals.
Essentially, Kepa has kept out four goals more than expected based on the quality of chances for the opposition, bailing out an underperforming defence a number of times. On three occasions this season, Kepa has had to make five or more saves in a single game.
This may all say just as much about Chelsea’s defence, which is stuck between the old and new, as it does Kepa. But as Chelsea prepare for their double-header against City, Kepa can at least afford a little smile as his redemption arc perhaps comes full circle.