Edouard Mendy had to be at his very best to ensure Senegal got their first win of the World Cup.
Two sublime saves against Qatar prevented goals from Almoez Ali, and then Ismaeel Mohammad sealed the 3-1 victory. But such form is too little too late for Chelsea.
With doubts over Mendy and Kepa Arrizabalaga as No 1 for the long term, The Athletic has been told by more than one source connected to the club that they have started looking at potential candidates to replace them.
The Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium have already sent out a signal of intent by signing 18-year-old American Gabriel Slonina from Chicago Fire for an initial £8.1million in August. He has played just 43 times in the MLS though, so will need to get more experience before getting an opportunity.
Four years on from the last World Cup and Chelsea appear to be back to square one, with the club’s goalkeeping situation having been one of the subplots of the tournament in Russia.
Here’s a quick recap: Belgium international Thibaut Courtois was named best goalkeeper at that World Cup but hadn’t agreed terms on a new Chelsea contract, so after going on strike to force a move, he left Stamford Bridge less than four weeks after his country defeated England in the third-place play-off.
Real Madrid capitalised on Chelsea’s inability to get an extension finalised and the fact Courtois had just 12 months on his deal remaining. They paid £35million for his signature, a bargain at the time and even more so now given he has gone on to win five major trophies with them, including the Champions League last May.
Another factor in all this was Liverpool beating Real Madrid and Chelsea to the signing of Alisson from Roma for £66.8million, just days after the 2018 World Cup Final. The Brazil international was the first choice for both clubs, with Chelsea having already been planning for life without Courtois.
After missing out and with the new season just days away, Chelsea spent £71.6million to acquire Kepa from Athletic Bilbao, a world-record fee for a goalkeeper. Two years later, they paid an initial £22million for Mendy from Rennes.
Chelsea didn’t want to lose Courtois. He was just 26 and had been a key part of two Premier League title wins, plus an FA Cup and League Cup success. However, they were given little choice.
The current scenario is not identical. Kepa and Mendy are both contracted to Chelsea until 2025, so there aren’t the same pressures to negotiate fresh terms or sell. But Chelsea still find themselves in a position of feeling like they need to look for a new ’keeper.
No one saw this scenario coming at the beginning of the year. Mendy was highly regarded, not just at Chelsea but in the game as a whole. His heroics helped Senegal win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in January. Eight months earlier, he was in the Chelsea side winning the Champions League against Manchester City, keeping a ninth clean sheet in the competition, a joint record.
The supporters loved him. They reacted with anger when he was left out of the top 30 names vying for the 2021 Ballon d’Or and when the 30-year-old finished runner-up to Gianluigi Donnarumma for the Yashin Trophy.
But how quickly things have turned. The high-profile errors for both goals in Senegal’s 2-0 loss to the Netherlands this week was seen as more evidence of a loss of confidence. As good as those saves were against Qatar, they were against the lowest-ranked team in the competition and won’t be enough to convince critics.
One has to feel sympathy for Mendy. Ever since he took too long over a backpass and gave away a penalty in a 3-2 loss to West Ham last December, he has looked less assured with the ball at his feet. Real Madrid and Leeds capitalised on this nervousness to beat Chelsea and it has had a detrimental effect on other parts of his game.
Added to that, two men who were instrumental in his signing, technical and performance advisor Petr Cech and loan technical coach Christophe Lollichon, have left. Both provided advice and support. Lollichon remains on Mendy’s side, tweeting shortly after the Netherlands setback this week: “Everyone knows that the very high level does not forgive anything, neither a technical error nor a lack of concentration. Everyone also knows the inconsistency of opinions, from irrational praise to destructive criticism without looking for explanations.
“A banal judgement becomes exceptional for no reason. A gross mistake is supposed to erase all the talent expressed for several seasons, especially in the position of goalkeeper. It is the flood of comments where incompetence and ignorance often reign. Yes, Edouard has not been at his best level for some time, but he has demonstrated, both in his life and in his career, his tremendous ability to overcome obstacles. Come on, Edouard!”
It shouldn’t be underestimated how unsettling their departures have been. Nor that coach Thomas Tuchel, who consistently picked Mendy ahead of Kepa, was replaced by Graham Potter in September. Potter’s style places even more focus on a ’keeper being able to pass. Plus, of course, there are now new co-owners with money to spend in the market.
There were meetings with them over a contract extension in the summer but to no avail. Mendy is one of the lowest paid members in the squad, below £100,000 a week, but requests for a pay rise to be closer to his team-mates were rejected. It was an early indication perhaps of what the hierarchy thought and, significantly, there haven’t been any further discussions for months.
So what of Kepa? Well, he has benefitted from Potter’s arrival. Until the Spain international suffered plantar fasciitis last month, he had replaced Mendy as first choice. A run of fine performances in October put him on the shortlist for Premier League Player of the Month, while a great triple stop at Aston Villa was rewarded with a Premier League Save of the Month award.
Kepa is considered to be better passing out from his own area and, fitness permitting, will be expected to start against Bournemouth on December 27, Chelsea’s first game following the World Cup break.
But there was a reason Chelsea bought Mendy to replace him in the first place. After doing reasonably well in his first season, Kepa struggled for over a year under coach Frank Lampard, with his ability to handle crosses and stop shots from long-range coming under particular scrutiny. It took Mendy’s departure to the Africa Cup of Nations in January for Kepa to get a bit of regular game time under Tuchel and show signs of a renaissance.
One of the reasons 28-year-old Kepa has not gone elsewhere up until now is because of his transfer fee and a salary of £170,000 a week. Team-mates were under the impression he was saying goodbye to them at a get-together after the final game of last season, but a move, not even on loan, didn’t materialise.
His improved performances will not have gone unnoticed by other clubs. Mendy, despite his recent downturn, is bound to attract offers because of what he has achieved. Building on the Qatar performance will help matters, too.
What happens to both goalkeepers next depends on when Chelsea find who they want. Out of the two, one suspects Mendy will be the easier to sell given his wage and the transfer fee originally paid is significantly lower than Kepa’s. But the fact Chelsea are looking elsewhere at all speaks volumes.
(Top photo: Claudio Villa via Getty Images)