Thomas Tuchel had flipped the script. Kepa Arrizabalaga had been Chelsea’s Carabao Cup goalkeeper this season, but for the final at Wembley on Sunday the German shuffled his deck. First-choice stopper Edouard Mendy took the Spaniard’s place for the showpiece clash with Liverpool. Kepa would still strap on his gloves though, as the back-up goalkeeper was called upon to take Mendy’s place in the penalty shootout. What followed would be pivotal in the outcome of the final.
After every outfield player on both sides scored their spot kicks, the responsibility fell to the custodians. Liverpool’s 23-year-old keeper Caoimhin Kelleher fired his spot kick home with aplomb. What followed was the cruelest of ironies, the man who had been introduced as Tuchel’s penalty specialist ballooned his kick over the bar to hand Liverpool the trophy.
The Chelsea head coach brought Kepa on as Mendy’s replacement due to his penalty expertise. Of course, nobody expected this to extend to the actual taking of spot kicks. But the thinking was still shown to be flawed, considering Liverpool scored 11 out of 11 penalties. The man brought on specifically to save penalties allowed every single one he faced to hit the back of the net. He got a hand to a couple of them, but there was little in his brief performance to suggest he offered anything Mendy wouldn’t have.
So why bring Arrizabalaga on at all? The idea of the “penalty specialist” keeper is somewhat new. The most famous example is Tim Krul’s heroics at the 2014 World Cup. Louis Van Gaal substituted Jasper Cillessen for the then-Newcastle United star in the last minute of the quarter-final against Costa Rica. Krul stopped penalties from Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to send the Oranje through to the semi-finals, and a trope was born.
Suddenly, the Liam Neeson approach was en vogue. Managers the world over were bringing on goalkeepers with a very particular set of skills to try and gain an advantage in the lottery of the penalty shootout. Were these goalkeepers in possession of a greater aptitude for stopping shots from 18 yards than their peers? Was their presence merely a mindgame, a ruse to make the takers think they were supernaturally gifted in the art of penalty-saving? Who can say. But knockout football became a more colourful place for the intervention of these shootout mercenaries.
Kepa Arrizabalaga misses the 22nd penalty after being subbed on for the shoot-out! 😨
Yesterday felt like a nadir for the genre, but was it a fatal one? Thomas Tuchel would perhaps argue it was not. The studious coach would probably mention Kepa has been on the winning side in six of his last eight shootouts. The former Paris Saint-Germain coach may offer up the statistic that Kepa has been beaten by 69% of the penalties he’s faced, while Mendy has conceded 83% of his. On the face of numerical evidence, Kepa’s role on Sunday evening was justified.
However, football is not just a game of numerical probability. There are physical and emotional realities involved too. Kepa had been visibly annoyed about being dropped for Mendy in the first place, seemingly expecting to have started. When Chelsea fans and substitutes roared their approval at a spectacular Mendy double-save in the first half, the Spain international sat stony-faced.
When he came on, he seemed determined to prove his manager wrong. This eagerness came across as overcompensation, as a series of failed mind games played out between Kepa and the Liverpool players. Arrizabalaga was a whirling dervish, waving his arms and shimmying around his net to try and displace his foes. His efforts failed on all fronts, typified by the moment Kepa stood in the right-hand corner of his goal to try and clown Virigl van Dijk, only for the defender to fire past him into that same corner.
This is where the penalty specialist tactic fails, the point where the plan leaves the page and finds the pitch. For all his statistical superiority, Kepa did not seem to be in the right frame of mind to play. Starting him would have settled him. Not removing Mendy would have changed the outcome too, though we’ll never know how. But bringing a riled Kepa on just for the penalties felt too clever by half, which speaks to the fading wisdom of the entire penalty specialist enterprise.
Time will tell whether this is the last we see of the “Tim Krul substitution”. As we approach the end of the season, there will be plenty more cup finals in which to test this theory. But after watching Liverpool win the Carabao Cup without missing a single spot kick, you do get the feeling Tuchel tried to be slightly too clever for his own good.
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