These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
How good will Kepa Arrizabalaga’s loan move look in one year?
This question has been on my mind this past week. The wide range of opinions on Kepa, Real Madrid’s new goalkeeper signing — taken on a one-year loan from Chelsea — has been all over the place. From a horror-show of a goalkeeper destined to be single-handedly the reason why Real Madrid will crash out of competitions, to, “no, actually, this guy is pretty good.”
The spectrum pretty well stops there. Few are over the top about Kepa, or that optimistic that he’ll be great, or anything close to the other-worldly Thibaut Courtois.
Kepa has, for the better part of his Chelsea career, turned into somewhat of a meme for his blunders over the years. The London club grossly overpaid for his services, paying 71m to Athletic in 2018 — a record for a goalkeeper. Even at the time, at the peak of Kepa hype when Chelsea signed him, there were skeptics. In 2018, StatsBomb released an article outlining how average he was in La Liga from an analytical perspective over the course of almost every available goalkeeping metric. His Goals Saved Above Average (a stat which outlines how many goals a keeper has either cost or saved their team) was -5.65. For perspective, Keylor Navas was +2.91. (Yes, Zinedine Zidane was right in his analysis to veto the Kepa deal.)
There are better goalkeepers than Kepa in Europe Real Madrid could’ve looked at, but on some level, that’s exactly why Real Madrid didn’t sign them. Most goalkeepers were overqualified for the job description. Real Madrid required a goalkeeper who was ready for a short-term commitment and was content to act as a stop gap until Courtois returns and re-assumes his starting role.
Kepa accepted that role, on a one-year loan that works out for Real Madrid nicely. The club has no obligation to purchase the Spaniard at the end of the season, and if Kepa plays out of his mind, then Real Madrid can revisit the case, and quite frankly, if that happens, they’re facing a very good problem. For now, between Kepa and Andriy Lunin, the club has good insurance until next summer.
Any conversation about signing a keeper to act as Courtois’s understudy for a year should be prefaced by stating that regardless of who that keeper is, he will be a downgrade. Real Madrid knew this, thus wary of spending big on a keeper who won’t be content competing with Courtois in the 2024 - 2025 season.
One keeper that was floated around last week as a potential signing was Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou. But Bounou would’ve been tough to get. Sevilla would not have been keen to sell their starting keeper to a rival team with little time left in the transfer window to replace him. As it turns out, what it took to pry Bouno away was €21m and a three-year contract from Al-Hilal. It would’ve been tough, and, above all, unwise to compete with that.
(One keeper that I personally would’ve looked at was Dominic Livakovic. His deal to Fenerbache is yet to be sealed, and Dinamo Zagreb are looking to sell him this summer so that they don’t lose him as a free agent next summer. Livakovic was impressive at the World Cup, and has one of the best PSxG-GA (Post-shot expected goals minus goals against) in all of Europe. He’s great on the ball too. Though, Livakovic would’ve been on a longer term deal, and we’d come back full circle to the initial problem with long term deals competing with Courtois.)
But give Kepa the benefit of the doubt, and give him the credit he deserves. He has turned into a meme so much that he’s become underrated. Last season, Kepa’s Goals Saved Above Average rose to +5.2. He ranks in the 92nd percentile in PSxG-GA and had a 74% save percentage. Chelsea undoubtedly overpaid for him five years ago, but there is no denying he is coming off a respectable season. Real Madrid did their homework, and brought in not only a solid keeper, but did so without financial risk. Kepa also wants to be at Real Madrid. That little detail, though secondary, matters to the club.
It will be interesting to see how Carlo Ancelotti will use Kepa. It may seem like a silly question to discuss how to use a keeper, but Kepa is hyper-aggressive coming off his line. He averages 1.65 defensive actions outside the penalty area — putting him in the 89th percentile of the metric. He likes to venture outside the box — something that may help sweep up some of the breaks opposing teams may have if Real Madrid are deploying a higher line. Though, that same aggressiveness obviously has its risks.
Kepa, in a vacuum, is probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of what fans think of him. He may not be Courtois, but he’s also a respectable signing given the circumstances. It’s not easy replacing the best goalkeeper in the world with a an accurately-qualified keeper on a tidy short-term contract with such little time left in the transfer window.