The Senegal stopper’s three clean sheets in four games suggests the Blues now have a dependable man between the sticks after Kepa’s struggles
Saturday’s stalemate was a damp squib, with both sides seemingly more interested in not getting beaten after mixed starts to the 2020/21 season. Manchester United had lost their opening two Premier League games at Old Trafford — 3-1 vs Crystal Palace and 6-1 against old boss Jose Mourinho, who manages Tottenham Hotspur these days — so another defeat was non-negotiable.
For Frank Lampard’s troops, the bore draw, in some way, signalled progress despite offering little going forward. In last season’s opener, a naive Blues side were thrashed 4-0 even though they’d matched the Red Devils for majority of the encounter.
On his second visit to the Theatre of Dreams, though, the Chelsea legend showed the required pragmatism to eke out a boring, yet auspicious point. Last season, United’s Expected Goals was 2.37. On Saturday the host’s xG was 0.66 as the Blues sat deeper this time around and held on to possession lesser than last term, therefore not exposing themselves to many fast breaks from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
Despite the collective effort of the side in limiting Man United on the day, the efforts of two players in particular made the Blues’ draw a possibility: Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy. The Brazil centre-back needs no introduction, having been a stalwart for Paris-Saint Germain for eight years following a three-year spell in Italy with AC Milan.
Mendy, however, was arguably more important than the South American on Sunday a turgid evening in Greater Manchester. In truth, the difference in approach, coupled with the organisational presence of Silva, saw Chelsea defend better in the North West at the weekend.
While the Blues effectively rendered Solskjaer’s team sterile, the home side sporadically threatened to score only to be thwarted by the Senegal shot-stopper and once by Silva, who was aware to Edinson Cavani’s movement to block his former PSG teammate’s goal-bound effort in the 87th minute.
In total, the former Rennes goalkeeper made four saves, but the pair of stops to deny Marcus Rashford stood out. The first, 10 minutes before half-time saw the stopper stick out his right leg to thwart the England international and the latter came at the death when the Red Devils made a late push for the three points.
That 90th-minute stop drew an enthusiastic applause from Cesar Azpilicueta. Rashford looked frustrated and Solskjaer, stood on the touchline, seemed astounded by the save. Chelsea supporters watching from home instantly took to social media to effusively praise the towering goalie.
Indeed, the West African has grown somewhat since his encouraging EFL Cup debut at Tottenham Hotspur, keeping three successive clean sheets since the late concession to Erik Lamela at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
The eagerness to come out to claim almost every cross into the box has been replaced by a far measured approach against Crystal Palace, Sevilla and United.
Supporters’ happiness with the 28-year-old’s display at Old Trafford is underlined by the assuredness in the new signing to prevent decent shots from scoring, a confidence that was ebbed away under former incumbent Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Doubts surrounding the big-money arrival from Athletic Club in 2018 grew exponentially in Lampard’s maiden year, with the club legend dropping the Spaniard in several key fixtures in 2019/20. Willy Caballero replaced the 26-year-old in those games but the South American isn’t significantly better than Kepa, neither can he be trusted to deliver consistent performances in a run of games.
The defensive malaise in Chelsea’s league campaign was laid bare by the concession of 54 goals in 38 matches, the highest in the top half, 10 more than Watford and 11 higher than Bournemouth, both of whom were relegated.
Despite having the 11th best defence statistically, the Blues’ Expected Goals Against per Understat was 41.09, interestingly in the top five in England’s top flight, along with Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Man United and Liverpool.
Chelsea’s negative disparity in goals conceded and xGA was the highest in the Prem, partly down to naive defending and, largely, below-par goalkeeping. Per Fbref, Kepa ranked third bottom for Post-Shot Expected Goals among goalkeepers in Europe’s top five leagues, a metric that tries to measure a goalie’s ability to prevent shots from scoring.
The concession of Wilfried Zaha’s long-range strike in last season’s run-in and Leandro Trossard’s effort from around the edge of the box typified Kepa’s average shot-stopping in recent months, while mistakes in the 2-0 defeat by Liverpool and 3-3 draw with Southampton this season meant the Spain international’s time as first-choice was up.
Mendy’s clean sheet vs United helped Lampard’s men keep only their second league shutout on the road since his appointment. The first came almost a year ago when the West Londoners defeated Spurs 2-0 in December 2019, a truly remarkable statistic emphasising the rarity of away shutouts.
Even though the London outfit were unproductive in attack vs Sevilla and on Saturday, both clean sheets showed the five-time Premier League champions can be less vulnerable in their defensive third.
Indeed, with Silva at the heart of the defence and, especially Mendy between the sticks, Lampard can be safe in the knowledge that his team are less likely to concede cheap goals to the opposition.
Finding the right balance to allow his attacking talent flourish, whilst not compromising on the recent defensive solidity, is the next step for the Blues legend, helped by the impact of the Brazilian and Senegalese keeper, who have unearthed a different side to this fledgling Chelsea team.