Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City sparked a surge of interest in the role of the goalkeeper. The Catalan’s distrust of Joe Hart led to the England No.1 leaving on loan while Claudio Bravo and Ederson – players he considered to be better on the ball – were brought in.
Over the last two years, the Premier League has become increasingly aware of the need for goalkeepers who do more than stop shots. Just as it already has done in Spain and Germany, the role is now seen as a multifaceted one.
Arsenal will have to start planning for the long-term future without Petr Čech soon. At 35 years of age and with his contract expiring in 2019, it would appear the Czech doesn’t have long left between the posts. To this end, they are purportedly keeping tabs on Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The 23-year-old broke into the Basque club’s first team last season after a successful loan spell in the Spanish second tier with Valladolid. His performances in La Liga have attracted the attention of Real Madrid, though Marca recently reported that Arsenal, as well as Italian champions Juventus, have joined the race for the goalkeeper.
Given the growing level of detailed analysis regarding the duties of the No.1, would Kepa be an adequate replacement to Čech for the Gunners?
KEPA THE COMPOSED
One of the first traits that stands out when watching Kepa is how composed he is, on and off the ball. When faced with a one-on-one situation he stands his ground and waits for the opposing attacker to commit themselves. His confidence also feeds into his decisiveness; once he has calculated whether or not to come off his line, or to rush out of his penalty box, he does so wholeheartedly.
With possession, he is rarely flustered by the pressure of opponents and is comfortable waiting for the right moment to pass. And, if he has little time to think, his decisiveness often leads to clearances to remove the immediate danger.
These traits are the results of his time spent in the Athletic Bilbao academy, which he joined at the age of ten. When discussing the club’s approach to youth development, director of football José María Amorrortu said: “They (the players) must understand the game to make to make optimal decisions, not under strict instruction.”
This understanding is evident in Kepa’s playing style. He is constantly alert to the situation, makes decisions quickly based on what is going on around him, and is therefore rarely found out of position. In all of these respects he is similar to Čech. However, physically the two are different.
Arsenal’s current first-choice is the taller of the two. Standing at 6ft 5in he is almost three inches taller than Kepa, which lends itself to his being a more dominant force aerially. However, the Athletic Bilbao man punches less and catches more, on average, than the Czech, who is also not quite as quick when coming out of his penalty area.
Speed when rushing out is a relevant factor considering that the Gunners tend to have a lot of space behind their defensive line when attacking, especially when taking into account the fact their average possession of 58.4 per cent is the third highest in the Premier League and that none of their centre-backs are particularly fast.
Arsenal have been caught out in defensive transitions through simple long balls over the top or passes through the back line countless times in recent years. In order for that issue to be minimised, their goalkeeper must have confidence, awareness and speed.
Kepa, while perhaps not as commanding as Čech, has all of those qualities.
THE TACTICAL DIFFERENCES
Perhaps unsurprisingly given he plays his football in La Liga, Kepa is technically assured for a goalkeeper. He has a good first touch, meaning he is able to control the ball instantly rather than take a number of touches, risk inviting pressure and being forced into a turnover of possession.
His aforementioned composure plays a part in his ability to receive the ball cleanly, but this also requires a level of technique that many goalkeepers do not have. However, despite this ability, his contribution to build-up is arguably reduced by the team he plays for.
Athletic Bilbao are one of the more direct sides in Spain’s top flight. Indeed, only Eibar hit more long balls per game than Athletic’s 78. This statistic highlights the team’s playing style, which often involves minimising risk in their own third by building attacks as high up the pitch as possible.
As a consequence of this, Kepa is rarely seen exchanging passes with his central defensive team-mates. If the centre-backs are on the back foot they will pass back to the goalkeeper. But he will, in turn, look to go long most of the time rather than play out.
The 23-year-old does involve himself in these instances, however – just as he does defensively – he shifts his position to accommodate receiving the ball to build attacks. His passing is accurate; he has the same percentage accuracy as Čech despite playing over seven more passes per game and distributing over a greater average distance.
In stark contrast to Athletic, Arsenal play the second fewest long balls on average in the Premier League. Kepa’s range and quality of passing is good for a goalkeeper, and it could get better within a team that focuses more on building possession from the back.
While unspectacular, Čech is a functional passer. He keeps thing simple and tries to avoid complicated situations. However, he is almost entirely reliant on his left foot and isn’t totally comfortable when dealing with pressure on the ball.
Kepa, however, welcomes pressure, drawing out the opponent before making his pass. In addition, he is able to clear and pass with his left foot despite being naturally right-footed. Both he and Čech are primarily reactive goalkeepers, but he has the potential to be a more proactive last line of defence.
Arsenal are aware of the importance of their shot-stopper and look to have begun the process of identifying and recruiting their current No.1 well. Signing Kepa would not only mean bringing in a long-term option with a whole career ahead of him, but adding a player who suits their tactics.