To replace one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Chelsea had to break a world record to bring in the most expensive – but who is Kepa Arrizabalaga?
2018 will always be remembered as the ‘Year of the Keepers’ for a number of reasons. Gigi Buffon left Juventus after what seemed a lifetime, Loris Karius was the unfortunate main character of the Champions League final drama and, during the transfer market window, Liverpool absolutely smashed the spending record by splashing nearly $85 million on Alisson Becker from AS Roma.
Kepa Arrizabalaga is the latest addition to this sudden surge in interest for top goalkeepers. In a swift and surprising move, Athletic’s former player and his lawyers calmly walked into La Liga’s headquarters on Wednesday morning and paid the $92 million buyout clause in order to become a new Chelsea addition.
In case you were wondering how to pronounce @kepa_46's name… 😉
(Cheers, Dave). pic.twitter.com/S7QbIF3zks
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 10, 2018
The move was completed as a three-part deal. Thibaut Courtois, in turn, has switched London for Madrid once again, this time as a Real player.
Some Chelsea fans will surely be puzzled after such transfer news. Most of them are not deep La Liga connoisseurs, and Athletic Club isn’t one of the most popular teams to follow in the UK. But Kepa’s story is indeed quite meaty, even though he’s extremely young still (23).
He became a household name for fans in record time, coming straight from the Athletic Academy (where he played since he was 9) and becoming one of the youngest keepers to make his debut in LaLiga. He had played in Segunda for Ponferradina and Real Valladolid, but in the 2016-2017 Ernesto Valverde decided that he deserved no more loans: he would become one of the first team goalies and, eventually, become a starter in what would become the manager’s last season in Bilbao.
First day!! Ready for saturday. @chelseafc
Primer día! Preparado para el sábado. pic.twitter.com/RlVW7bnPcg
— kepa Arrizabalaga (@kepa_46) August 9, 2018
Kepa’s breakthrough season was truly spectacular. Very, very impressive. His height, his reflexes, his cold-blooded stance under pressure. He was only 21, but he played like a veteran. Athletic owed plenty of points to his saves. He was even chosen by UEFA in the best Newcomers XI thanks to his performances.
When summer 2017 came around, his name was already making the rounds in Madrid. Real’s boss Florentino Pérez had eyed his great run in Primera, and thought that Kepa would be the perfect replacement for Keylor Navas. Although the Costa Rican had at that point contributed crucially to two Champions League wins, Florentino has never really thought of him as a top class player. Kepa was the future. So talks began with his agents.
Once January came around, negotiations were underway and it seemed he soon would pack things up and move to Real…but two reasons prevented the deal from happening. The first one: Zinedine Zidane trusted Navas and believed he owed allegiance to a keeper who always delivered, even under the utmost levels of pressure.
The second one: Athletic was ready to make an effort and negotiated an extensive deal with his player. It was January 22nd when Kepa and his club, where he had been for fifteen years, announced the new deal: a new contract till with 2025 and a $92 million buyout clause.
The Real Madrid door was closed. However, modern football and the huge sums spent by English sides have suddenly turned things around. Chelsea made a gamble with manager Maurizio Sarri, and the Italian coach remembered Kepa’s name from a while back. “He’s very young, but he’s also very, very good”, he said a few days ago. Once it became clear that Courtois wanted a ticket back to Spain and that Real were very happy to oblige, Chelsea moved quickly and efficiently. The deal was closed in a matter of days.
With the addition of the Basque keeper, the Blues haven’t only signed a player for current times but also a goalie with a tremendous future ahead. We’re talking, if De Gea’s unreliability in the World Cup persists, about Spain’s first team starter for the next decade. Very skillful, with plenty of personality and experience to boot regardless of his young age, the cash sum might have been huge… but there’s no doubt that Kepa will deliver, as he’s always done.