Kepa sits down with the official Chelsea website and before opening up on his adaptation to life at Chelsea on and off the pitch, he tells the story behind his impressive ball-playing ability…
Football never stops evolving. It is one of the reasons it is so compelling. You can have watched 100 matches in your life, 1000, perhaps even 10,000, but you will continue to be intrigued, inspired or infuriated.
One such development occurred in 1992, when the International Football Association Board introduced a new law in response to defensive tactics at the most recent World Cup and European Championships. It banned goalkeepers picking up backpasses made with the feet, and also banned them picking the ball up again once they had released it. The knock-on effect was immediate: goalkeepers had to get better with their feet.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and goalkeepers are now expected to be almost as comfortable on the ball as any outfielder. They no longer simply thump clearances downfield, but initiate moves with quick, accurate passes intended to switch the play, or start the process of unsettling the opposition’s shape.
In the past 18 months, there have been few better exponents of a passing goalkeeper than our own Kepa Arrizabalaga. The Spaniard has completed more short passes - deemed by Opta to be 30 yards or less - than any other Premier League stopper since he arrived in the summer of 2018. The stat is made more impressive when you consider he has done so with a mighty 99 per cent completion rate.
‘I feel confident and I feel good playing with my feet,’ Kepa tells the official Chelsea website when we ask him about his history of ball-playing, and whether it was innate or learned.
‘When I was growing up I would watch Spain play. When you are young you try to copy what you see. It was the Spanish national team’s way of playing, so we tried to do that from a young age.
‘At Bilbao it was something they wanted us goalkeepers to do in the academy. Then it depended on the manager in the first team. It changed a little bit when I was there. We played a bit longer because it we had two very strong strikers.
‘But also in the national team, and before in the young national teams, we need to play very much with our feet. I think I always have had good play with my feet, but obviously every year you are improving.
‘Of course you work on it with your team-mates and the goalkeeper coach, but also you keep your time after training: to try some passes, try some situations that can happen in the game. The final target is to improve and be better.’
As well as rapidly adapting to the passing demands set first by Maurizio Sarri and now Frank Lampard (he is well on his way to topping last season’s tally of successful short passes), Kepa has also had to adjust to a new league and a new country in the past 18 months.
He admits it has been a ‘big change’ off the pitch, not least because of the differing sizes of London and Bilbao, and with it the differing levels of traffic! But he loves how much there is to do in the capital, and says he is ‘happy and comfortable’ here, a place that now ‘feels like home’.
And when it comes to the rigours of English football, the 25-year-old has also had to acclimatise quickly. It is a challenge he relishes.
‘It’s a little bit different to playing in La Liga,’ Kepa explains. ‘The players, and the goalkeeper also, are less protected by the referee. You need to be stronger in some balls, because the referee doesn’t say it’s a foul. You need to learn a little bit these situations.
‘You also need to understand English football is very quick, can have less control or less touches, but more opportunities. The ball can be far away, but in two touches it’s in the box, so I need to be ready for 90 minutes.
‘The games are very good to watch, with a lot of goals, speed. You need some time, but then it’s fun to play.
‘I like so much the English football, the spirit of the stadium, the supporters,’ concludes Kepa. ‘As players you like to play in this atmosphere. I am happy and with good feeling here.’