With penalties on the horizon in the 2022 EFL Cup final, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel made a gamble that many managers before him have struggled with. By subbing in Kepa Arrizabalaga for Edouard Mendy, Tuchel made the choice to sub out his star keeper for a penalty expert. While it didn’t work out for Chelsea, this has brought back a spotlight on this dice roll that managers rarely do.
In the dying moments of the EFL Cup final, Tuchel called up Kepa from the bench as a Hail Mary for the coming shootout. Kepa would not be the hero for Chelsea, not because he was terrible at saving penalties, rather it was his embarrassing penalty that cost them the trophy.
This tactic to pull the starting keeper before penalties for a supposed penalty ace has been rarely used in the modern history of the sport. However, this doesn’t mean that the penalty gamble hasn’t been used at some prestigious events, it’s been seen at World Cups and UEFA Super Cup finals. With it being such a unique choice, it feels that it’s in a taboo area of the sport.
It’s such an interesting gamble because it doesn’t have many clones in other sports with baseball being the only sport that allows for a similar bet. In addition, it may have interesting impacts on a team’s spirits, especially on the keeper being pulled. With both considerations, it’s definitely a unique choice that is more of a coin flip than anything else.
With the weekend’s events still fresh in mind, it would be useful to look back at some other times this has happened, including a few that have had Kepa as the protagonist. Also, breaking down this decision and why it’s so polarizing would be helpful in figuring out why this gamble is made.
A gamble that many managers don’t feel like making and one that feels too risky for what is essentially a coin flip. That being said, this strategy has been seen on the sport’s greatest stage, the World Cup, and other prestigious tournaments in Europe.
In Brazil, at the 2014 World Cup, many were introduced to this move, as during the quarterfinals between the Netherlands and Costa Rica, Dutch manager Louis van Gaal broke this tactic out. Keeper Jasper Cillessen had been having a good game, but van Gaal decided to sub in Tim Krul for the shootout. An angry Cillessen stormed off the field, but fortunately for the Dutch, Krul would have an excellent performance and send the Netherlands through.
However in the semis, van Gaal didn’t gamble again with the performance by Cillessen keeping Argentina at bay for the whole game. This would backfire on van Gaal with Cillessen failing to save a single penalty and the Dutch players failing to keep up with Argentina’s penalty takers. With a record of 1-1 at the tournament, it’s difficult to say if this move was worth it.
Turning back to Kepa, as unbelievable as it may seem, he has been involved in a total of three different moves to sub out the starting keeper for a penalty expert. The first time is a lot more interesting, while the second is similar to the weekend’s events.
In the 2019 EFL Cup final against Manchester City, with the game at 0-0 nearing penalties, then Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri moved to sub in former City keeper Willy Caballero. Seeing the substitution coming, Kepa refused to leave the pitch, sending an enraged Sarri into a fit. Ultimately Chelsea would lose the shootout, more the fault of the penalty takers than Kepa, and Kepa’s reputation would forever be tied to this moment.
A more positive incident featuring Kepa occurred last summer when Chelsea faced Villareal in the UEFA Super Cup. In the exact same move as Tuchel would pull six months later, he put in Kepa for Mendy to deal with the penalty shootout. Kepa would save two penalties, giving Chelsea the trophy and marking himself as Chelsea’s penalty guru.
From Kepa’s antics to van Gaal’s scheming, there is a history of this move being made in big moments, but that still doesn’t make it widely accepted. In both cases, the record is even with the bet both working and backfiring.
It’s hard to find a comparable action in other sports other than in baseball, as most sports lack this type of dynamic. Additionally, this gamble could lead to interesting impacts on the player being removed as well as the team overall.
The only sport where a similar situation could occur is in baseball where a pitcher may be yanked from the game for a reliever. Similarly, a pitcher could be having a great game, but in a key moment, a manager could opt for a reliever that could deal with the final innings. Just as in soccer, this is a bet done to better the chances a team has to win.
Unlike in soccer, this happens all the time in Baseball with players carving niches and becoming known as players who are made to play in these situations. In fact, these roles are incredibly important for teams that have lofty ambitions, as they can provide help in key moments. Relievers and closers are deeply integrated in the sport now, where they can command big money.
When Cillessen was pulled from the quarter final shootout, he kicked a crate of water bottles in frustration, as he honestly deserved to stay in for the shootout given his performance. Understandably he was shocked, it’s not often that a keeper gets pulled in these moments. In that moment, it must have felt like a betrayal by van Gaal, as he tried to tinker himself to a win.
Mendy, in both instances, understood what was happening and, unlike Kepa, bowed out gracefully. Despite a man of the match performance during this past final, he was still willing to sacrifice himself for the team. It’s a little baffling that Tuchel went with Kepa given how well Mendy has been performing for Chelsea this whole season and may seem as if he doesn’t trust him in these moments.
A rather unique dynamic that can only be rivaled by baseball, this gamble doesn’t happen as often in baseball, but is more shocking. Also, the awkward dynamic that can then occur between player and manager can leave the player in a feeling of distrust that can be hindering.
It is such an interesting gamble, as penalties are not an exact science with no amount of studying film ever truly preparing a keeper for the moment. Bringing on a new keeper is nothing more than another roll of the dice in a situation that can be the equivalent to a coin flip. Time will tell whether fans will see this tactic in another high pressure moment, but when it does fans will be glued to the scene.
Featured Image: Sky Sports