LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: Richarlison of Everton scores his team's first goal past Kepa Arrizabalaga of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Chelsea FC at Goodison Park on December 07, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Chelsea vs. Man U a battle between Spain’s #1 and #2, but which is which?


Chelsea versus Manchester United should be a closely-watched goalkeepers’ duel to see who might be Spain’s No. 1 in this summer’s European Championships. Instead, there is doubt over whether Kepa Arrizabalaga will even start.

When Chelsea bought Kepa Arrizabalaga for £72 million it not only signalled the hopeful start of the next goalkeeping dynasty at Stamford Bridge after the hiccup of the Thibaut Courtois years, but also the changing of the guard for the Spanish national team. Arrizabalaga’s transfer fee, direct entry into a top Premier League starting XI at age 23 and first few months as a Blue all put the pressure on David De Gea. De Gea was the present and Arrizabalaga was the future. How long until they became, respectively, the past and the present?

Two-thirds of the way through Arrizabalaga’s second season in England, the answer seems to be “a bit longer.”

Arrizabalaga started six of Spain’s 10 Euro 2020 qualifier games last season. De Gea started the group stage opener against Norway, the home game against Faroe Islands (the second meeting between the two in the group) and the second game against Sweden. Both players sat out the penultimate group stage game against Malta, as Pau Lopez did the dead rubber honours.

Since that last international break in November, Arrizabalaga has come under increasing scrutiny while David De Gea has kept Manchester United’s season from approaching Arsenal levels.

Despite being in eighth place, Manchester United have conceded the fourth fewest goals on the fourth fewest shots against. Despite being in fourth place, Chelsea have conceded the 10th fewest goals on the second fewest shots against. The Blues – that is to say, Arrizabalaga – has the Premier League’s worst differential between expected goals allowed based on shots on target and actual goals allowed. De Gea and Manchester United are also in negative territory on that stat, but at -2.1 compared to Arrizabalaga’s -5.2

In case you’re wondering, Pau Lopez is at +2.0 as AS Roma are just barely overperforming their expected goals against.

Chelsea’s defence warrants a large share of the blame for Arrizabalaga’s struggles this season, but that’s what the advanced analytics are for: assessing goalkeepers’ performances while controlling as much as possible for the defence in front of them. Once the defence has been breached – whether that’s a rarity or a regularity – how does the man between the sticks deal with what comes his way? Compared to his peers, Arrizabalaga is barely a top half No. 1, let alone Chelsea’s and Spain’s. Fortunately for his club and country ambitions, his competition in both teams are not clearly pulling away.

Frank Lampard kept Arrizabalaga on the bench for the last game before the winter break. Until someone does their post-departure tell-all interview we can only speculate what Lampard’s reasoning and intended message was. One game is not enough to knock Arrizabalaga off his perch as the starting goalkeeper, especially since Caballero conceded two goals to Leicester. But if Lampard taps Willy Caballero against Manchester United, everyone – from Kepa Arrizabalaga to the Chelsea board to salivating goalkeeper agents the world over – will know precisely what the message is.

And at this point, Arrizabalaga is only the nominal favourite to start for the Blues. If not for the ridiculous series of events and decisions that created the extenuating circumstances chronicled by my colleague Barrett earlier this week, it would be a coin toss between Arrizabalaga and Caballero (although, if not for those ridiculous events and decisions, Arrizabalaga might not be at Chelsea, or at the very least would not be the prohibitive No. 1).

If he is not the confirmed starter for Chelsea, he is in a more precarious position with Spain. They still have David De Gea, who is much more experienced and consistent, despite the occasional howler. But even those howlers are part of his consistency. Spain, like Chelsea, may think Arrizabalaga needs several more years to develop; or they may think he needs competition for the No. 2 spot, and he can find himself battling Lopez for now and someone even younger by the time De Gea ultimately retires.

Both goalkeepers will be staring down the pitch at the other on Monday, hoping the men in the 100 yards between them do not compromise them any more than usual.

Instead of two top players battling for the No. 1 job, this may be a war of attrition to see who falls hardest so the other can move ahead in the race to Euro 2020 by default.