Very few people would have envisioned Kepa Arrizabalaga playing for Chelsea in 2021.
Following a year in which he saw his reputation on the pitch plummet, it would not have been surprising to never see the Spaniard wear the number one shirt again.
Languishing on the bench and displaced by Édouard Mendy, we began to see less and less of Arrizabalaga. Perhaps his chance had finally gone, and it was the end of a tumultuous era at Stamford Bridge.
Yet this year, Arrizabalaga has returned to the limelight.
Thomas Tuchel’s arrival opened the door for a fresh start, a new beginning as Arrizabalaga’s third manager in three seasons. While Mendy remains first choice, his deputy has received a fair few opportunities to prove his worth under Tuchel.
Now three months into the Tuchel era, Arrizabalaga has made five appearances and kept five clean sheets. Regardless of level, status or quality, that is a feat worthy of recognition – especially at Chelsea.
From Brighton to Manchester City, Arrizabalaga has impressed every time Tuchel has placed his trust in him.
The 26-year-old looks confident and assured in goal, distant from the man who could not command nor dominate his own box. His vocal nature has finally returned, dictating the game from the back and communicating well with every player in the team.
He is making the comfortable saves expected of him, as well as pulling off some crucial ones which have influenced the game. Think Oliver McBurnie for Sheffield United, Rodri for Manchester City, Callum Brittain for Barnsley.
To think that, six months ago, it was all but over for the Spaniard, he has shown the remarkable mental character and strength many knew he had.
In every game under Tuchel, Arrizabalaga has turned up.
Above all, it is great credit to Chelsea’s number one for persevering through challenging times. He needed that fresh start under a new manager, and in time, that confidence and self-belief was bound to return. It is a pleasure to see hints of the old Kepa, the record-signing goalkeeper who was pivotal in the Blues’ last silverware success.
Arrizabalaga is not back to his best yet – signs of his shakiness and uncertainty do occasionally seep back through. But he is in a far better position than he was 12 months ago, looking more self-assured and like a player Chelsea can trust, rather than fear.
Is his recent form enough to restore his number one spot? Not yet. But is it a reminder of what he is capable of? Absolutely.
When Arrizabalaga was at his lowest, it was easy to give up and concede to the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. But we had seen his qualities the previous season, enjoying an impressive debut campaign under Maurizio Sarri. The quality was there, the confidence just had to be reinstalled.
Arrizabalaga turns 27 in October, and he is no longer the fresh-faced youngster who had just arrived in the English game. It may not be enough for him to truly develop into a world-class talent, yet the door remains open at Stamford Bridge.
Perhaps the Spaniard does still have a long-term future in west London, whether that is as the outright first-choice or a trustworthy deputy. Three months into a new manager’s reign is too early to make that ultimate decision, especially with sporadic talks of bringing in yet another new goalkeeper.
Whatever the future may hold, Arrizabalaga must keep going. He must build on this momentum, continue to prove himself and show his qualities inbetween the sticks.
Next month’s FA Cup Final may be his best chance, on the biggest stage in the English game. Having played every minute of Chelsea’s run to the final, he certainly deserves to be starting against Leicester City on 15th May – but that decision comes down to Tuchel.
If Arrizabalaga does get the nod in goal and helps the Blues to victory, it would be a huge success for the man once outcast and alienated at the Bridge.
He is lucky to be receiving these opportunities to prove himself in the team, a fate not bestowed onto all at the club – see Tammy Abraham.
Arrizabalaga must keep proving his worth: the door is open, but it is Chelsea’s number one who must take that step through.
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