Tactics and Transfers: New defenders are more likely than goalkeeper

The economics of Kepa’s Chelsea deal, in addition to the likely figures of any new goalkeeping addition, make defence the likely first course of action.

There’s a good chance that rather than replacing goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga this summer, Chelsea decides to try and mend the defence first. The Blues will likely give the Basque goalkeeper another year to settle in England.

The reason for this is simple: the expense of Arrizabalaga forces the club to do what it can to support him and finally get his career in London to the heights that were expected of it. This could, of course, go out the window with the combination of Manchester City’s CAS ruling in regards to Financial Fair Play and the fact that all bets are off whenever Roman Abramovich truly decides the club needs a player. But one must be prudent and prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

It is because of this Chelsea is inclined to try at least one or two more years with Arrizabalaga. This is for the same reason that managers are more often changed as opposed to entire squads of players. It is cheaper to try and find a manager who works with an expensively assembled squad than it is to try the reverse. Though that dynamic works on a sliding scale the longer a manager is present, until you get to the case of someone like Sir Alex Ferguson, in which case the opposite is true and it’s easier to change players than the manager.

Chelsea is in a similar position with Arrizabalaga. Having paid £72 million for his services and then signing him to a seven-year contract—worth £190,000 per week—the Blues are in a very difficult position. One, which only really eases if Arrizabalaga turns the corner and begins to fulfill his potential. Unfortunately, should he not, then his amortized value (which is the cost of his transfer and his wages split up over the course of his contract) is roughly £21.8 million-a-year makes things very difficult. Given his play in recent years, the sad fact is at that fee, there’s no reason for another club to take the financial risk that would come with acquiring him. His salary alone would be a burden too large for many clubs to handle in the post-COVID 19 financial landscape. Especially for a non-guaranteed improvement over in-house options.

If Chelsea was to add another goalkeeper to replace the Spaniard, presumably that goalkeeper would need to be a can’t-miss, world-class player or a cheaper alternative who isn’t guaranteed to supplant Arrizabalaga in the first place. Let’s examine two options here then. The first being the transfer of Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak. The recognized best goalkeeper in the world would be a guaranteed upgrade over Chelsea’s current keeper. That said, at a transfer fee of almost £100 million and his Atletico Madrid wages already a whopping €400,000-a-week, a number Chelsea would have to match or improve in the case of a transfer, this becomes a ludicrous expense.

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Say somehow, Chelsea manages to talk Oblak into moving from a side he is the captain of and is a celebrated hero for without improving his wage packet, he’d still be signing a five-year contract in London worth roughly £360,000 per week. That brings his amortized value to a minimum of £38.7 million in a single year.

Andre Onana of Ajax is another option. The fees surrounding his transfer are suggested to be around £30-35 million. Then, even on fair wages a deal of five years at £150k per week, comes out to a total amortized expenditure of £74 million or £14.8 million a year. Which comparatively looks much better when compared to Oblak’s but then need I remind you there’s no guarantee that he’s better than Arrizabalaga? So, that’s a £15 million gamble on top of a £21.8 million investment whose value you have now decreased.

Every transfer has a risk; at least with Oblak, he’s literally the best goalkeeper alive, so the risk is mitigated as much as possible. Onana is simply another gamble on an unknown entity with a great deal of potential.

Those are the options then.

Chelsea’s goalkeeping staff would either cost the club about £60 million pounds per year and likely be massively improved or £36 million-a-year with a 50-50 chance of improvement.

It’s unfortunate, but the expenses that went into Kepa’s deal have tied the Blues’ hands a certain amount. Things could change should a bidder be willing to take on the challenge of the undoubtedly talented Spanish goalkeeper, but that is unlikely. Even if it were to happen, Chelsea would still likely need to pay a portion of his wages—as well as take a hit on the transfer or loan fee. Arrizabalga was bought by the club at its most desperate time, at the most extortionate height of the transfer market two years ago. The financial outlook of the majority of the footballing world simply is not the same.

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The economics of this tie Chelsea’s hands into trying to solve the problems with the defence and hoping that they have a positive impact on the success of their goalkeeper. Should they succeed there, then they will have maximized their earlier investment anyway and it should not be forgotten that Arrizabalaga was—and is still—considered by many to be one of the most talented potential goalkeepers in football. He just hasn’t put it all together yet. The rough, confident and brusque player he was for Athletic Bilbao has only shown glimpses in England and there is an argument that a defence that actually gave him confidence might bring the Bilbao version of the keeper all the way home.

If the Blues add a defender, they can partially offset that fee with the sale of another one, as well as the fact that they are adding depth to a position where it is traditionally necessary.  The idiosyncrasies of the goalkeeping position make the idea of having two huge stars with massive salaries nearly impossible to maintain. Then, with an improved defence, they will also have isolated their variables and be able to know if the problem was Arrizabalaga in the first place; which by the way, they still don’t!

Arrizabalaga could very well be the best goalkeeper alive, one who simply is so shellshocked and exasperated behind his backline that he hasn’t had time to catch his breath since arriving two years ago. Credit to him, he has shown moments of brilliance in that time and has worked under the ridiculous circumstance of two totally different managers with totally different philosophies since his arrival.

At this moment, Chelsea could replace Arrizabalaga with Oblak, be in the hole for a huge sum that stops the club investing in the side further, not improve the defence and still find out that that’s where the fault lay the whole time. This way at least lets Chelsea have some sort of plan of action while spending the money responsibly. If Abramovich wants to dig Chelsea out of this hole, he can. Of course he can, he’s done it before. That said, the club must act in its best interests and not require saving time and time again.

Next: Chelsea’s defense is probably fine with a better keeper behind them

The Blues simply must improve their defence before making a change at the goalkeeping position, so they can at least fairly assess the situation of their biggest investment ever. To do anything less would be financially irresponsible.