‘Sometimes it’s a relief to be taken out the line of fire’: How a struggling goalkeeper finds form

Vithushan Ehantharajah
·10-min read
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (Pool via REUTERS)
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (Pool via REUTERS)

It has got to the point where it does not matter if Kepa Arrizabalaga starts for on Saturday against West Bromwich Albion. Either way, it is a story.

Of Frank Lampard keeping faith with a player who looks to have lost confidence in himself. Or, finally, dropping a goalkeeper who, after two full Premier League seasons, has proven to be more a hindrance than a boost to Chelsea's top three ambitions.

The case against him has been mounting and is now threatening to topple over. The most recent evidence – at fault for a goal and a red card against Liverpool – nestling atop somewhere near the damning statistic that of the 28 goalkeepers to play at least five games in 2019/20, Kepa had the 27th best save percentage (54.5 percent). A keeper that cost £71m whose probability of keeping the ball out of the net can almost be decided on a coin toss.

The signing of Edouard Mendy from Rennes for £22m is a significant development. An alternative that, unlike Willy Caballero, is not typecast as a perennial No 2. An option with a greater sense of permanence.

But even given the merits of the 28-year-old Frenchman, this is not the end for Kepa. From a purely business perspective, writing off such an expense is unfathomable. And given the state of the transfer market, one which Chelsea have exploited well over the last few months, commanding what they would deem an acceptable fee for the Spaniard is very unlikely.

So while Mendy will light a fire under Kepa, Lampard and his other Chelsea coaches must crack one of football's most unique problems. How do you get a goalkeeper back into form?

The first thing to consider is that keepers tend to carry their poor form in the first XI longer than others.

"Managers tend to allow goalkeepers time to get back to their best," Mark Schwarzer tells The Independent, off the back of a professional career spanning three decades, including 514 Premier League appearances for Middlesborough, Fulham, Chelsea and Leicester City, and 109 caps for Australia. All spent mostly as a team's No 1.

"You get more leeway than outfield players. You're generally No 1 for a reason and you'd have been there for a while, so you've got credit in the bank, so to speak. You get more time to get things right."

However, as we have seen with Kepa, more time to get things right also means more time to get things wrong. And you do not need to be a body language expert to have seen the 25-year-old's reaction after Sadio Mane picked off his tame pass and finished into an empty net last week to conclude that even he seems to be resigned to his shortcomings.

"Footballers are realistic, regardless of position," says Schwarzer. "Some people will know they have been given a fair rub of a green and a lot of empathy and the manager has backed you. But you've just made too many mistakes that have cost the team.

"As a goalkeeper, it's never easy to take. And it does build up inside of you. Sometimes it is a sense of relief to be taken out of the line of fire. Even if that decision carries more a heavier toll for keepers than other positions."

An outfield player benched, such as an out-of-sorts striker, is still likely to get a cameo in a match. Perhaps even bag a soul-nourishing goal. But the lot of a goalkeeper is that you either play the whole game or none of it.

"Once you're out, it can feel almost impossible to get back," Schwarzer says. "If the guy who replaces you is playing well, it doesn't matter what you do, or how well you're training."

So, then: what is the 'struggling forward's cameo goal’ for a keeper? What is the equivalent in-game trigger? Is there even one at all? The answer to that third question is ‘yes, but not really’.

Schwarzer needed good performances stitched together over the course of, say, seven weeks, along with a back-to-basics approach and greater intensity in training. But within those performances were the odd worldie that reminded him of his worth.

Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has struggledReuters
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has struggledReuters

"It was never about one save, or keeping out a penalty to get me back and fully confident in my ability. But that kind of stuff did help as a little building block along the way. It definitely was a case of a run of games where you felt, 'OK, now I'm making saves that are winning us points'. Technically, you're in a good place where you're doing things as second nature, such as where your hands are and how you gather, say, bouncing shots that can be quite tough when you're slightly off."

The volatility of a keeper's work also puts an onus on repairing the mental side as quickly as possible. More coaches are attuned to how a player's psychology can reveal itself as technical flaws: as over-thinking and worry cloud judgement. David Preece, goalkeeping coach at Swedish club side Ostersund, is someone who focuses on this aspect when building his players back up.

"Over the years I've realised it's about working on deeper concepts," says Preece, whose ethos has been honed by a 22-year playing career that took him from Darlington to Denmark, and, over the last few years, as a sage analyst on all things goalkeeping.

"A lot of times when a keeper is out of form, it's generally not one specific mistake they are making all the time. Those different mistakes come from rash decision-making. The kind of rash decision-making that happens when you are riddled with doubt."

According to Preece, one of the modern-day tells of a goalkeeper in strife is shouting unnecessarily. It is a trait usually held up as the sign of a someone in control, commanding his backline with authority. Now, the professional wisdom is that the one who bellows does so to create the illusion of control. Arguably the three best keepers in the league right now, Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City) and Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur) are the three calmest.

"It's something I probably first noticed when I looked back at how I was when I was struggling," says Preece. "I realised I was trying to fight through it. I was shouting all the time thinking I was doing the best for everyone and myself. It looked like I was trying really hard. It might have looked good to the crowd, but that attitude was a front. And if anything it put my defenders on edge, because I was laying into them. It was almost like they had a different person behind them."

The shouty stopper is one of the many weak cliches in what is largely a binary assessment of goalkeepers in general football chat. That in part is down to having so few former goalkeepers as pundits. Even if they are there in the studio or the side of the pitch, time constraints tend to mean worthwhile technical analysis is limited. The majority of the time it feels the discourse basically amounts to the idea that a keeper should have done better for every goal they concede.

"The lack of nuance around how we discuss goalkeepers is affecting what we see from goalkeepers," offers Preece. "The punter in the crowd is quicker to lay into their own man if they let in one, say, at the near post, which they have been condition to believe is a serious error.

"Then a goalkeeper is talked about in the media as having this issue, and it might push him to do things differently. Suddenly he's leaving the far corner open or not coming for crosses effectively because he's worried about his near post because that's what people are hammering him for."

The flip side of this is a theory Schwarzer has on the effect social media and lazy punditry is having on keepers. "You'll notice goalkeepers parrying balls get more accolades than a goalkeeper that actually catches the ball.

"The mentality is that if a goalkeeper catches a ball, it wasn't a good shot – because he caught it! But if he parries it must have been a really good shot because he wasn't able to hold it. They get accolades from people who don't really know what a decent save is or when a parried shot should have been caught. The parry has almost become a form of instant gratification for those who really need it."

Alas, without crowds in the stands, these cheap pops do not have the same effect. Thus the importance of supportive, cheerleading teammates is all the more pronounced.

Schwarzer remembers a period for Middlesborough in the 2005/06 season where a loss of form almost saw him leave the club (he would stay for two more seasons). Not necessarily through a dip of his own making, but because he felt the fans, players and his coach, Steve McClaren, were starting to pin the team's woes solely on him.

"What I felt at that time was I was singled out as a scapegoat, so to speak. I had quite a lot of the fans on my back, and I felt the manager jumped on board with it all, and the finger-pointing went on. I fell out with McClaren quite badly.

Mark Schwarzer had a long and successful career mainly as a No 1
Mark Schwarzer had a long and successful career mainly as a No 1

"That's the hardest bit – when you feel like you've lost the confidence of those around you. That's probably the moment where it's almost impossible to get back from. The moment where you think, 'right, I've got to move to restart again and prove to people I actually am still one of the best'. It is difficult to turn that situation around."

Kepa is not quite there just yet. Lampard has backed him publicly even if the transfer activity in the background over the last couple of months suggested trust was dwindling.

"We have to keep working," said Lampard earlier this week. "Kepa has to keep working and he has to have support around him. That's very clear. Now we've got to try to give him confidence because that's important."

Kepa may cede his number one tag to Mendy sooner rather than later. But that may be no bad thing for the former. In fact, it may bring with it some form of exoneration.

"The goalkeeper is always the first to be blamed," starts Schwarzer. "But what you find is the change of keeper rarely fixes the deeper problems in a side. It merely highlights the other problems that need to be fixed."

Chelsea are well aware of their defensive structure more broadly. There has been an inability to maintain shape or discipline, and it may be insightful for them to have a series of games without a player who has been the lightning rod for most of the criticism levelled at the side to really identify some of the root causes. How much of Kepa's uncertainty has been cultivated by a backline frequently leaving him exposed?

Indeed, time out of the XI might be exactly what Kepa neds. Not only to refresh his mind and focus on rebuilding his stock away from the harsh glare. But also shine a light on the fact that not everything has been his fault.

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