Kepa’s U-turn a key feature of Potter’s early Chelsea days
Graham Potter's unbeaten start at Chelsea has been in large part down to Kepa's form (Getty)

Few saw it coming, not least Kepa Arrizabalaga himself. The Chelsea substitutes bench had become a second home for the 28-year-old, but now he goes into his team’s clash with Manchester United on Saturday as the most in-form player from either side.

Kepa had been playing second fiddle to Edouard Mendy since the Senegal goalkeeper’s arrival two seasons ago, but has now started seven games on the spin and kept five successive clean sheets, with the aim of notching up a sixth at Stamford Bridge this weekend.

Graham Potter is yet to explicitly state Kepa is his No.1, and the decision was made for the new Chelsea manager when he arrived last month given Mendy’s absence due to a knee injury. But Mendy’s dip in form had become an increasingly prominent storyline in the final weeks of Thomas Tuchel’s time as manager. Kepa has grabbed his opportunity with appropriately firm hands.

Kepa hasn't conceded in almost 280 minutes of play (Getty)

This is no rags-to-riches fairytale, however. Rather it is a story of gaffes to golden gloves. Kepa became — and remains — the world’s most expensive goalkeeper after signing a six-year deal back in 2018 when Chelsea felt a very different club. Ask most neutrals for their abiding memory of the £72 million ‘keeper and they will no doubt offer the League Cup final of 2019 when he refused to be substituted by then-manager Maurizio Sarri.

That unusual moment and a string of gaffes performed behind a defence which often left him exposed saw Kepa’s confidence sink and it quickly seemed that his time at the club had its conclusion already written. Even in last season’s League Cup final with Liverpool, Kepa was sent on by Tuchel for the penalty shoot-out: he failed to save any of the 11 penalties faced and missed the decisive spot-kick which gave Liverpool victory.

Even if work behind the scenes had begun at Cobham to rebuild Kepa’s confidence as early as last year when Tuchel made a concerted effort to keep his No.2 ‘keeper involved, there was little tangible reward. To football fans, he was a figure of fun.

In the summer, Chelsea were open to Kepa’s exit but the market to sign him was limited to Napoli, who always seemed an unlikely destination given their drive to trim rather than grow their wage bill. The fact that the Spaniard is one of Chelsea’s highest earners will naturally reduce the credible suitors for his services. And it was also a burden for Chelsea until a few weeks ago.

It seemed that Kepa would remain a drain on Chelsea’s books this season but such has been his screeching U-turn under Potter, he can now be deemed a productive part of the team. The club’s owners, with their efficient business-heads on, will also prefer Kepa to be put to use rather than laid to waste on the bench.

'I need to keep working'

Yet Kepa’s return to the starting XI has been earned on merit. He has not conceded in nearly nine hours of action, has the best save percentage in the league (94.1 per cent) and in the past two games (a 0-0 with Brentford and 2-0 victory over Aston Villa) has kept a total of 3.52 xG (expected goals) at bay.

Ivan Toney was denied countless times on Wednesday evening as Kepa continued his fine form, and the Chelsea ’keeper’s newfound nonchalance was apparent as he calmly took an audacious lob from Bryan Mbeumo down on his chest.

Kepa's fall from grace was well-documented (Getty)

Likewise against Villa, Kepa was peppered with shots; six came at him during the first half alone and each one was repelled. Then there was a remarkable, acrobatic stop to deny Danny Ings. No wonder Potter embraced him afterwards. It goes beyond the saves, however; Kepa’s greater willingness and ability to sweep up far from his goal and come off his line to claim high balls have both been evident in recent weeks.

I feel good and as I am helping the team when they need, so for that I am happy,” he said after the draw at Brentford. “Every player needs confidence and a push from the head coach. For a goalkeeper, maybe it is even more important when you play games in a row.

“You always have to be aware, as in training it isn’t the same. Now I am confident, and I think I am playing well. I need to keep working.

Kepa will face fellow Spaniard David De Gea when United travel to Chelsea this weekend, and a place in the Spain national squad could arise in time for the World Cup. His successor at Athletic Bilbao, Unai Simon, currently holds the roja jersey.

Kepa’s form has possibly masked Chelsea’s lack of fluidity in attack since Potter arrived. The Chelsea manager will hope his attack start to find their feet. Although Chelsea remain unbeaten across the seven games the new manager has overseen, there has been a lack of creativity in the final third. Against Brentford, every forward Chelsea own was thrown on in an attempt to score.

For now, though, Potter can rely on Kepa, who’s on his way back up.