Chelsea’s chaotic, thrilling 4-4 draw against Ajax in the Champions League on Tuesday gave proof that every now and again, the competition's group stage–as predictable as it may seem–can occasionally offer a tremendous amount of entertainment.
But for Chelsea’s star goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, the definition of entertaining soccer often depends on who you’re asking.
“This was undoubtedly a high-paced game between two energetic, physical teams who kept going at each other. And there were a lot of goals, no doubt,” says the 25-year-old Spanish stopper, speaking to SI.com. “But I’d say it was more fun to watch, than to play. This one was more for the neutral.”
Conceding four goals in a game–the third being an own goal after the ball inadvertently hit him in the face after rebounding off the far post and eventually going in–is not exactly indicative of a strong goalkeeping performance. It even drew shade from teammate Michy Batshuayi, who infamously booted the ball of the post and off his face following a Belgium goal at the 2018 World Cup.
But Kepa did save Chelsea on more than one occasion, especially in the 85th minute, when he made an acrobatic save to deny Ajax’s Edson Alvarez that kept it at 4-4.
And that’s a quintessential part of Kepa, as he has knack for coming up big in late moments, when the opposition is throwing everything at Chelsea. Last weekend he provided another example, as it was his save in the dying moments that denied a late equalizer from Watford's forward-surging goalkeeper Ben Foster to preserve a 2-1 win.
In many ways, Kepa represents what Chelsea is all about under Frank Lampard: He's young, relentless, not yet the finished the article and totally determined to fight until the last minute. As Chelsea sits in fourth place in the Premier League entering the weekend, the stopper knows that while this squad is in a good place, it’s important to not get carried away.
“We had a rough start to the season, but we’re now playing well. We have spirit and unity and we are feeling better like a team,” Kepa said, speaking during an event in London as he promoted the official ball for Euro 2020.
Kepa can see a new sense of squad unity under Lampard and thinks this chemistry can only improve as the season develops. Under the former club captain, Chelsea scores goals, but it also concedes plenty (its 17 goals conceded puts the club among the bottom half of defensive units in the league), and that’s something Kepa wants to rectify.
“We have new players, but little by little we’re getting," he said. "Every year is different and new managers come with different styles and philosophies, so we’re adapting to Frank, but you can see how much we’re growing.”
One of Kepa’s new teammates is Christian Pulisic, the 21-year-old American attacker who has been in strong form, scoring four goals in the last two league matches and providing another solid outing against Ajax.
“Well, he was our only signing this year," Kepa said. He’s young but very experienced, both with the U.S and Borussia Dortmund [last season]. Against opponents, he’s very dangerous and a threat, and most importantly, he’s a player that fits really well in our team.”
Despite the lack of incoming transfers due to the transfer ban under which the club is currently operating, Kepa once again uses team unity as a sign that despite the obstacles, this young squad can deal with adversity.
“The ban is something that we can’t control but I think thanks to what happened, we have shown we can come together," he said. "We have reacted well and we have shown that we’re a team that plays well together. Even though it’s early and were developing. It’s still early but we’re getting there.”
The optimism around Stamford Bridge is obvious, but what’s important, as Kepa reiterates, is the need stay focused and hungry–and ideally for him, a few clean sheets. Next up for Chelsea is a home game against London rival Crystal Palace before a visit to the Etihad against Pep Guardiola’s Man City, one of the biggest tests this developing team will face all season.