Kepa Arrizabalaga plays for Chelsea, and is the World’s most expensive goalkeeper. But he’s become famous for his recent bad behavior, where he refused to be substituted by his coach who thought he was injured. He admitted he was in the wrong and was fined a week’s wages and sat out the next game.
Hardly a role model for young keepers?

But first a little humor – What’s the hardest position for the coach to substitute?

The Kepa!

In this post we explore how a young keeper comes back from such adversity, and the lesson to us all – when you’re in the wrong, the best apology is to play better and justify your coach’s original faith in you.

The Kepa refuses

Kepa’s refusal to be substituted can be reviewed here – and as you can see, the coach was far from happy. Unfortunately Kepa was unable to save enough of the pens and Chelsea lost a close final 3-4 on kicks.

He sat out the next league game against Spurs, and was unsure if he’d play again this season. Many Chelsea fans turned against him on social media, and many of the game’s TV pundits called him disrespectful and suggested he be sold.

But the Chelsea coach Sarri relented, feeling the young keeper had served his punishment, and gave him the jersey for the next league game against Fulham, a side with lots of danger up front, but which had been unlucky and found themselves almost at the foot of the table.

Off to a bad start

The game started badly for Kepa, who came off his line to take a fairly simple catch from a high swirling cross into the box. Instead, he dropped it at the feet of the striker….

Fortunately his reactions were sharp and he recovered the ball before the striker can pounce.

Let’s study this mistake in detail, using slow-motion, and see what lessons we can learn.

Firstly the cross – it’s a high, swerving ball, carried by a little wind, acting as an inswinger.

By the time the ball reaches Kepa it’s swinging back over his shoulder.
Kepa comes off his resting place on the 6yd line, and can see the Fulham striker out the corner of his eye, motioning towards the ball.

Here are the first two clues with what went wrong – Kepa has misjudged the flight of the ball, and he’s concerned that the striker is going to collide with him.

In this circumstance, as we discussed here, the better decision is often to punch. Catching can yield terrible results.

As the ball arrives at Kepa’s outstretched hands, he’s in a good position – his leading (left) leg is raised, helping to cushion any contact from the striker, his arms are straight,

his fingers open and pointed towards the ball, hands slightly apart.
He’s got (almost) everything right and thinks he’ll make the catch.
But his judgement of the flight of the ball is slightly off, the ball swirling in the wind,
and his left hand makes contact first, knocking the ball upwards and to his right, such that his hands cross
and the ball spills to his right, away from him.
It actually lands right at the feet of the striker,
but he’s turned his back, concerned that the keeper will hit him soon,
And by the time the striker reacts, it’s too late, Kepa has dived sharply to recover the ball.

Punch or catch – the common dilemma for keepers

So the lesson from this mistake is simple – if you’re going to catch, you must get everything right, most importantly judging the flight of the ball.
If the ball is swirling in the wind, or hit with spin, and you fear a collision with another player, always punch, preferably with two hands, and away from danger. More in this post here.

For Kepa, who carried the extra burden of doubt from his coach and many of his team’s fans, this was not the start he wanted. But he picked himself up and had a fantastic match, making several world-class saves. Chelsea won 2-1, and his saves certainly ensured the 3 points.

From zero to hero only takes one moment of magic

This save, at 1-0, held Fulham at bay, and is remarkable for a couple of reasons.

The ball is intercepted on the halfway line, and Kepa is on his resting place near the “D”, as Chelsea have the ball and are almost in the opponent’s half.
As the transition to defense occurs, Kepa quickly retires to his 6 yard line.
The strikers pour forward, and at one point the player with the ball has two options – push into the box for the other runner to run onto, or push it wide.

Kepa must stay close to the middle of the goal, and prepare to rush out to meet the runner on a 1v1.

Instead the ball is pushed wide
and Kepa covers his near post

We discussed making sure you cover your near post here.

But the ball is crossed, hitting a defender and looping up into the air, causing Kepa to revert to the middle of the goal.
As the striker hits a beautiful volley, Kepa is perfectly placed, feet grounded and he has perfect sight of the shot.

But it’s his reflexes that make this save, and he jumps high to his right, and tips the ball acrobatically over the bar. The striker Mitrovic cannot believe his bad luck.

Note also the landing – once Kepa has made the save, he must land safely without damaging a shoulder or wrist.

The body is swiveled to face the floor and the hands are used to cushion the landing. This requires practice, and the speed with which it’s carried out will be missed by many but is crucial to safe goalkeeping.

Kepa’s confidence grew after this save and he kept Fulham at bay. Without his efforts the game may have been lost.

Indeed the quality of goalkeeping at both ends was exceptional, as this save by Fulham keeper Rico demonstrates. The reflex left hand save looks incredible at full speed.

So what did we learn from this post?

Firstly, the dog house is where a keeper can expect to find themselves a lot. Usually through bad mistakes and goals conceded, but in this case, through bad behavior which upset the coach and his teammates.

The only way to redeem oneself is to work hard, accept the past for what it is, and perform. Kepa showed this in this game.

Secondly, we saw once again how important it is to judge the flight of the ball, and adjust for things like swing, spin, and wind.

Crucially, if in any doubt, punch it out.

Thirdly, we saw the importance of positioning in an attack, covering the near post, then recovering to the centre of the goal, and trusting reflexes to do the rest. Quick, precise footwork is the cornerstone of this technique.

Above all, every Kepa has ups and downs, sometime in the same game. So don’t give up!

Tips for coaches – Confidence – Cohesion – Technique

This post demonstrates the importance of confidence and honesty in your keeper. If you feel they are not honest with themselves, or not listening to your requests of advice, bench them. Give them space to reflect, but remain open and receptive. Let them come back into the fold early and on your terms.

We also discussed catch versus punch and the tips for drills given here remain useful.

Finally we saw the benefit of quick feet and sure confident positioning. We covered a couple of drills here in a recent practice, which will enhance footwork and positioning.

Above all, recognize keepers, like Kepa, are young athletes on a journey of discovery, and they will make mistakes like all humans do.

Be there to guide, show them the right path to take, and help them learn from those mistakes.