Tuchel has fixed Lampard's £72m problem but faces huge Chelsea decision ahead of Liverpool


Ahead of Sunday’s Carabao Cup Final clash between Chelsea and Liverpool, there is a debate as to which of his two competing goalkeepers Thomas Tuchel will select. Edouard Mendy has been Chelsea’s number one ‘keeper, pretty much since he arrived in September 2020, ostensibly to replace the bereft of form and confidence Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Thomas Tuchel has been frank in the media in terms of the goalkeeping hierarchy at Chelsea. Having selected Mendy ahead of Kepa for the recent Club World Cup final, he said of Kepa:

"He is so good in training and in the games. He could be the number one, yes, he is not because we have Mendy and Edou is our number one."

It is hard to argue with that assessment, after all Mendy has an incredible 39 clean sheets in 73 appearances for Chelsea. His 9 clean sheets in last season’s victorious Champions’ League campaign went a long way to securing the trophy for Chelsea.

But Kepa, who stepped in and stepped up when deputising for Mendy while he was away at AFCON, conceded only 3 goals and kept 5 clean sheets in the 8 matches he played.

 More to the point, he looked back to his best, or perhaps better than his best at Chelsea, with a penalty save against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup; some great saves against Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup semi-final and a superb save in the Club World Cup semi-final from a long-range effort from Mohammed Kanno of Al-Hilal.

It all seems a long way from Kepa’s nadir at the beginning of the 2020-2021 season when it appeared that Frank Lampard had given up on him and replaced him with Mendy. Kepa seemed consigned to being Chelsea’s number two. No club would want to pay the £72 million Chelsea had paid for him and it looked impossible to move him on.

Very few Chelsea supporters grumbled about this at the time. On a human level, it was a difficult watch as it often is when seeing a player’s confidence and ability seep out of them like water escaping a colander.

 But thinking purely of the team rather the individual, it really did look like Kepa’s Chelsea career was over and Mendy’s arrival was best for the team. Kepa’s fall from grace had been rapid.

Bought to replace Thibaut Courtois, who skulked out of the club in August 2018, for a world record fee for a goalkeeper of £72 million, it seemed to weigh heavily on the relatively inexperienced 23-year-old Athletic Bilbao keeper. By the time Mendy arrived Kepa’s stats made horrifying reading.

A domestic save percentage of 54% was the worst save percentage in Premier League history. Based on Opta's expected goals on target data (xGoT), Kepa conceded 11 Premier League goals more than the model would expect the 'average' goalkeeper to concede: the worst figure of any goalkeeper in the division. The fact that he failed to move for 14 of the 47 goals against him was evidence that his confidence was on the floor.

There were high points such as his penalty saves in the Europa League semi-final penalty shoot out against Eintracht Frankfurt and there were also some surreal moments such as his refusal to be substituted by Maurizio Sarri in the Carabao Cup Final against Manchester City. Given how low Kepa had fallen, it is remarkable that he should be in the conversation at all in challenging Mendy for the number one spot.

Thomas Tuchel and goalkeeping coach Hilário have clearly worked extensively to rehabilitate Kepa and restore his confidence and judging by his save in the Club World Cup semi-final, some wrist and arm strengthening work too. Under Lampard, there was always a feeling that an opposition player merely had to fire a shot towards Kepa and it would go in, even if he got a hand to it.

Having performed so well in the semi-final it must have been a huge disappointment to see Mendy selected for the final on his return from AFCON. But as former Watford goalkeeper Richard Lee discussed on the ‘Goalkeeper’s Union Podcast’ with Matt Beadle:

“When they (Chelsea) did win and they're celebrating, he looked like he was really enjoying it with them. Chelsea are forming a really strong goalkeeping bond between Kepa and Mendy with really good competition. Kepa wasn't brought in to be a number two for that amount of money, but if you take the price tag out of it and you just look at a number one and two with Mendy and Kepa, it's amongst the best.

Really good competition, both playing exceptionally well, really valued by their manager. It is a really content goalkeeping department” Lee, who spent plenty of time being a number two ‘keeper, explained the difficulty with the role:

“You have to have a certain type of mentality. A lot of the time, not having to put yourself in the firing line, you've got a lot of the good stuff that comes with the position in terms of training and your day-to-day lifestyle. Yes, you don't have the game time, you don't have the major highs, but you certainly don't have the major lows and you often see, or you have seen in the past that some goalkeepers can become very comfortable being number twos.

You need someone with the right characteristics, someone who's going to come in and push the number one but do it in the right way. So, as well as pushing them, they're also potentially an aid to them, a bit of a sounding board for them helping them maximize what it is they could do.”

This appears to be what has happened and has very much been part of Kepa’s rehabilitation process and adaption to his new role at the club, as Thomas Tuchel said,

“Every day he is in unbelievable spirit and does not take these decisions (to leave him out) personally and he does what it takes to be on his personal highest level.”

This was backed up by Kepa himself "It is important to help the team and be calm and be happy with your performance. Those are the most important things for me. You know I am not playing a lot, so the opportunities I have, I want to take."

Mendy too seems to recognise the importance of a good supportive but competitive relationship between the number one and two ‘keepers:

"My relationship with Kepa is good since I came here. We have a good relationship on and off the pitch. He did really well when I was at AFCON but it didn't surprise me because I saw him every day at training. I was super happy for him because he deserves it. When you play for Chelsea, you have competition in every position, so you have to give your best and play at your highest level to be in the team at the weekend."

But can it work having two very good goalkeepers at the club in the long term? There have been precedents in international football of course, with Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence for England in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. England manager Ron Greenwood would pick them in rotation as he genuinely could not decide who was the better ‘keeper and his number one.

International football is vastly different from the week in week out slog of club football of course, but Matt Beadle believes it is possible to have two ‘keepers of similar levels at Chelsea:

“It is quite the unique situation, although a little like Navas and Donnarumma taking it in turns over at PSG. I think a lot of credit must be placed with Tuchel. He's clearly managed the dynamic extremely well and, while I like Lampard, I think he did the complete opposite.

The landscape has evolved so much in recent years, and at the very top level you are now seeing "No2" goalkeepers almost utilised as what I'd call a "No1.5". With the likelihood of playing 20+ games per season and winning (and earning) trophies at the same time, goalkeepers like Kepa have perhaps reassessed the situation and thought, "Actually, this isn't as bad as I thought it was." There's also the argument that it takes less of a toll on your body, too, thus potentially prolonging your career.”

With the Carabao Cup Final approaching, there is a precedent of second keepers starting in finals. Kepa started in the FA Cup final against Leicester last season and perhaps unfairly took the blame for Youri Tielemans’ 25-yard shot that proved to be the winner.

 Jurgen Klopp has confirmed that Caoimhin Kelleher will start ahead of established number one Alisson Becker for Liverpool in Sunday’s final, having played throughout the Carabao Cup campaign.

Will Kepa who has started all the Carabao Cup games for Chelsea this season get the nod ahead of Mendy? Kepa has conceded only 2 goals in the 5 Carabao cup matches this season and kept 3 clean sheets. He has also saved a penalty in the shoot out against Aston Villa in round 3. Kepa’s rare penalty saving ability may well be a consideration for Tuchel whether he starts or not.

Matches against Liverpool thus far this season have been tight affairs and the Final could well go to extra-time and penalties.

 As Kepa has proved before, he comes in to his own in penalty shoot outs and in fact, the biggest step back from the brink for him came in the UEFA Super Cup final against Villareal in August when Tuchel remarkably brought him on as a substitute for Mendy specifically for the penalty shootout. I wouldn’t bet against this happening again on Sunday.

If Mendy and Kepa are both genuinely worthy of being Chelsea’s ‘number one’ then perhaps it shouldn’t matter which of them starts. But if Mendy is Tuchel’s number one and Kepa his number two, as he has stated, then Mendy may well start. After all it’s a final and Chelsea are a club that demands trophies.

After the depths to which Kepa sank in 2020 and the hard work he has put in to rehabilitate his career at Chelsea, the sentimental side of me would love to see some redemption for him in the form of a match winning performance in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday.

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