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Kepa finding form at the right time for Chelsea with Mendy set for a month away at AFCON

12:00 EAT 23/12/2021
Kepa Arrizabalaga
The Blues' former record signing is pushing for bigger involvement, and will soon get an extended run of games as Mendy heads off to represent Senegal

Quietly, Thomas Tuchel has been on a mission to revive the career of Chelsea's former record signing, Kepa Arrizabalaga.

The £71 million ($95m) man, signed from from Athletic Club, saved only 53.5 percent of the shots on target he faced during the 2019-20 season, with expected goals analysis [xG] showing that he conceded 11 more times than the numbers would have predicted.

That, along with his poor performance on set-pieces, saw Kepa publicly criticised by pundits, journalists and even his own manager, Frank Lampard.

Furthermore, clips emerged on social media showing team-mates calling out the Spain international after set-piece confusion during a game away at Liverpool, with Kepa by then an international talking point.

The signing of Edouard Mendy the following summer was almost an emergency option on the part of the Blues, adding an insurance policy to a crucial position on the pitch.

Mendy grasped his chance after signing from Rennes, ultimately winning the Champions League with a record-breaking number of clean sheets for a goalkeeper at an English club.

It has led to recognition for the 29-year-old as one of the world's best, finishing runner-up to Gianluigi Donnarumma in the Yashin Trophy at the Ballon d'Or ceremony for top goalkeeper of 2021.

In the meantime, Kepa has been floated on the transfer market, but there have been no takers for him permanently or on loan due to the exceptional cost of his wages and potential transfer fee.

Mendy's positive displays have continued under Thomas Tuchel since his arrival, but the German's squad management has been superior to that of his predecessor Lampard.

Behind the scenes, Tuchel has masterfully revived the confidence of Kepa through his work with the whole goalkeeping department.

Noting that there is talent within the man who still possesses Chelsea's No.1 shirt, he has discovered through painstaking data analysis that Kepa is his best goalkeeper for penalty kicks.

That allowed the 27-year-old to be used as a substitute in the UEFA Super Cup, coming on in the last minute to win the European curtain-raiser as the hero against Villarreal in August.

Subsequently, he has delivered two more penalty shootout wins to overtake Petr Cech with the most saves in such situations in Chelsea's history.

"I feel more relaxed in everything now. I feel everything is going in the right way, and confident. I’ve felt my confidence is high again," Kepa said after Chelsea's penalty shootout win over Southampton back in October, a victory which set up Wednesday's Carabao Cup quarter-final meeting with Brentford.

Alongside that, in the cup matches, Kepa has demonstrated calmness and made a host of big saves as Tuchel tries to rest players for Premier League and Champions League encounters.

In the 2-0 win at Brentford, N'Golo Kante's moment of magic helped to find the breakthrough that led to Pontus Jansson's own goal.

Christian Pulisic then won a penalty which Jorginho subsequently converted, but it was Kepa who needed to make several big saves against Thomas Frank's men while the game was goalless, with the home side having their moments against a Chelsea team that included three teenage debutants.

And Kepa has now proven over a run of games that he is worthy of a bigger run in the team.

"I am super impressed with Kepa." Tuchel said when asked by GOAL. "It is not a surprise anymore because he is in the state of mind as a person, character and sportsman where he just delivers for us because he does what he does best.

"This is what he shows every day in training and this is why he gets the reward. I am absolutely sure that this is the reason why he has these kinds of performances.

"I am super happy, we need him in this kind of shape. The goalkeepers are a strong group. Kepa is a big part of it and Kepa was a big factor today, in the first half especially."

Luckily, the timing may be right for Kepa, with Mendy set for a month away at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal.

He can go and enjoy a competition that he is desperate to win, knowing that Chelsea are in safe hands with Kepa taking his place.