Let’s entertain a theory. The theory is that soccer players don’t actually change all that much over the course of their careers. That their skills sharpen and then erode, that they might lose a step, that their engine develops sludge, that they also learn the game better and trade on their experience. But that during a player’s prime years, the differences are small. The biggest thing that changes is our impression of that player. The primary variable is reputation.
Soccer players go in and out of fashion. Their value is in the eye of the beholder. A player comes up and establishes himself and a certain value is affixed to him. He is fashionable. But then he might suffer a crisis in form or a long-term injury or wind up with a manager who has no use for him. He falls out of fashion. He is now “useless.” Or “past it.” Or “overrated.”
That label is eventually internalized by the player himself. How can it not be? When everything he hears and reads reaffirms his newly downgraded status? His performances conform to the narrative of his decline. It’s a hard cycle of which to break out.
Which brings us, of course, to Kepa Arrizabalaga, the embattled Chelsea goalkeeper.
After only two seasons as Athletic Bilbao’s starting goalkeeper, he was anointed, at 23, as Spain’s next great goalkeeper. The next David de Gea, after de Gea was himself proclaimed to be in decline. Kepa was fashionable. Real Madrid came knocking, but he wound up at Chelsea as the most expensive goalkeeper of all time at a transfer fee of some $95 million. He succeeded Thibaut Courtois, who was off to Real where he, too, would soon fall in the public estimation.
Kepa made mistakes, as young goalkeepers do. His save rate wasn’t good. He gave up far too many goals from distance. The criticism doesn’t appear to have helped Kepa any. Nor has talk of his premature succession by Edouard Mendy from Rennes.
When NBC’s Premier League host Rebecca Lowe asked her studio pundits about any weaknesses ahead of Sunday’s Chelsea-Liverpool match, she qualified the question: “Do you see any weak links, other than Kepa?”
Kepa has become a laughingstock. Kepa is out of fashion.
Is the criticism warranted? Certainly. His inexplicably bad pass against Liverpool, trying to distribute the ball out of the back, the very thing he was supposed to be so good at, gifted Sadio Mane his second goal in the Reds’ simple 2-0 victory — abetted by Andreas Christensen’s first-half red card. Kepa also made two strong saves, particularly late on, reacting superbly to a deflect shot from distance.
But the unrelenting negativity surrounding Kepa also makes it nearly impossible for him to escape the downward spiral. Not only does he have to mend his own form and confidence in the glare of all that scrutiny, but then he’ll have to convince the fans and critics as they bay loudly for blood and a new goalkeeper.
More likely, Mendy will arrive and become all the rage. The savior. Until some reason arises for him to be cast in a different role. A villain. Or a bust. Kepa’s reputation will probably have to be restored elsewhere.
Consider the case of James Rodriguez. After the 2014 World Cup, the Colombian attacking midfielder was the hottest commodity in soccer. He went to Real Madrid and thrived. His stats were good every season, but Real moved on to other players regardless. James was allowed to join Bayern Munich on loan, but after two solid seasons, the Bavarians were done with him, too. Real barely used him last season.
This summer, his careered sagged to the point where he was available to Everton. In his second game, on Saturday, James was sublime in the Toffees’ 5-2 lashing of West Bromwich Albion. James is now seen as a sensation. He’s still got it. He is back in fashion. The man is, after all, only 29.
Tottenham Hotspur will hope for the same from Gareth Bale. After seven mostly glorious years, the Welsh winger has returned to North London from Real Madrid, where he, like James, fell from grace for no other reason than that manager Zinedine Zidane would sooner play somebody else. Bale had grown into one of the world’s top players in the Spanish capital, in spite of playing out of position for most of his time there to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo. But he became an outcast. A burden. Forgotten were his 105 official goals for the club, including the two that won the 2018 Champions League final.
When not hampered by injury, Bale is more or less the same player he was a few years ago when he was still considered among the elite in his position. At 31, he isn’t yet old. He might be a tad slower, but he’s also more polished now, after four Champions League and two La Liga titles.
For Spurs, Bale’s return is a coup. Especially on a loan with Real reportedly picking up half of his towering salary. A few good games and Bale will be considered rehabilitated. Redeemed. A new man. He will be back in fashion.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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