Is Kepa Arrizabalaga an Upgrade on Keylor Navas for Real Madrid?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kepa Arrizabalaga of Athletic Club reacts during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Atletico Madrid at San Mames Stadium on September 20, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Being one of the world's most successful clubs isn't always easy. The silverware has come rolling in for Real Madrid since Zinedine Zidane took charge in January 2016, but adding triumphs to the weight of history means only one thing: Expectation continues to grow.

To maintain the highest standards and ensure they keep fighting among the elite, both in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, Real Madrid have to continually invest and bring the top talent to the Santiago Bernabeu.

While previously that has meant the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale are signed, recent seasons have seen a switch in emphasis, with youth being added to this enormous talent pool in the hope they can continue the winning habit.

Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos and Jesus Vallejo are new inclusions in Zidane's squad this term, among others, but the search for younger options goes on in other positions.

Goalkeeper is one such area that could be next in line for an upgrade, with Athletic Bilbao's Kepa Arrizabalaga in Real's sights, per Carlos Carpio of Marca. But would he be an upgrade on Los Blancos No. 1 Keylor Navas?

         

Continually Dissatisfied

It has almost seemed as though Navas' time at the Bernabeu has been ticking down from the moment he became first choice in 2015.

Anyone replacing Iker Casillas on a long-term basis was always going to have their work cut out to win over fans, pundits and coaches, but the Costa Rican is in his third campaign as the go-to man between the sticks.

After recording over 100 games for Real Madrid, it might seem his claim should be beyond question—but somehow, it never is.

ALICANTE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 06:  David De Gea of Spain reacts during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Spain and Albania at Rico Perez Stadium on October 6, 2017 in Alicante, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

There was the David De Gea fiasco of 2015. Madrid came within half an hour of signing the Spain No. 1, only for paperwork issues to see the deal fall through—and although the rumours have never gone away since then, a transfer hasn't looked so close again.

In the summer, it was all about the alternatives. Gianluigi Donnarumma and Thibaut Courtois were the top targets, according to Jose Felix Diaz of Marca.

And earlier in October, the same publication's Juan Ignacio Garcia-Ochoa reported that Kepa was the man the hierarchy had decided upon, particularly due to the fact the Bilbao man is out of contract next summer.

That still stands, with no new deal agreed upon between the goalkeeper and his club.

      

Keeping Keylor

One big factor in Navas' favour is Zidane has spoken well of him and has the utmost trust in him.

A sticky patch of form at the start of 2016/17 aside, Keylor has been reliable, impressive and at times otherworldly for Real Madrid, particularly in Zidane's first half-season, when the defence was a shambles and the Costa Rican came to the rescue over and over again.

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 17:  Keylor Navas of Real Madrid reacts during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 17, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images )
fotopress/Getty Images

Even as recently as Tuesday, his heroics against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League showcased his worth to the team.

Spanish football journalist Alexandra Jonson believes Kepa is a great stopper to be looking at but that replacing Keylor is quite another matter.

"I do believe Keylor Navas is an exceptional goalkeeper, so to find an upgrade from him isn't an easy task," she said. "With that said, Kepa is one of the most promising 'keepers out there—I've been a big fan of his for a couple of years now. Navas is turning 31 in [January], and Kepa just turned 23, so in that sense, it would be a smart move to get a younger and extremely talented 'keeper.

"Also with the De Gea drama fresh in mind, it does feel like Real Madrid, for some reason, are determined to have a Spanish 'keeper. And in that case, I'd say Kepa is a much better choice than, for example, De Gea.

"However, I don't think Real Madrid are in a position where they are in a desperate need for a goalkeeper. Navas is one of the best you can get."

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 17: Keylor Navas of Real Madrid in action during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 17, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

There's no suggestion Keylor is declining or too old, so any move to add another stopper would surely be for competition's sake and continuity in the longer term.

The Costa Rican has another year left on his Madrid deal after the present campaign, which might just tie in nicely if Kepa is snared in the summer, as Marca's Euan McTear suggests.

"If Kepa arrives next summer, then I don't believe he would be coming to start straight away," he opined. "Although he's older than some think, at 23 years of age, he has only played 30 top-flight matches in his whole career and is still a little raw.

"As such, Keylor Navas would still be the best option for Real Madrid in the near future. Looking long term, however, [Kepa] has all the tools to develop to become a better goalkeeper than Navas, so he should ultimately prove to be an upgrade."

The timing works out nicely for Real Madrid—but the other side of that is whether a year on the sidelines would do much for Kepa's progression.

       

The Case for Kepa

In 2015/16, Kepa went on loan to Real Valladolid, spending the campaign as first choice in the Segunda Division. A year later, he was in the Athletic senior squad finally, aged 21, but he started the season as the third-choice 'keeper behind long-term No. 1 Gorka Iraizoz and perennial backup Iago Herrerin.

He displaced Gorka only a few games into the season and, bar a few injuries, remained the stopper of choice. The veteran has since moved on to newly promoted Girona, with Herrerin still the No. 2.

BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kepa Arrizabalaga of Athletic Club controls the ball during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Atletico Madrid at San Mames Stadium on September 20, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Kepa turned 23 on October 3, so while his experience isn't great, time is on his side. Given Athletic's preference (and need) for developing and keeping talented youngsters, even through tough times and injuries—see: Iker Muniain—it's feasible that he could remain at San Mames for a decade if he wanted to, amassing games and national recognition as he goes.

There's much to be admired in his game despite his inexperience.

He's an all-rounder, comfortable both aerially and making instinctive, reflex-based saves. A call-up to the national team has quickly come, and he's Spain's third-choice goalkeeper ahead of Sevilla's Sergio Rico, who is far more erratic.

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 31: Kepa of Spain , David De Gea of Spain and Pepe Reina of Spain looks on during a training session on August 31, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

It's unlikely Spain will find themselves with two goalkeepers of De Gea's elite quality, perhaps, but moving to Real Madrid would give Kepa the best possible chance of reaching that level—both on a technical and a mental level, with the demands on the team for near perfection.

Athletic fan and founder of social media site InsideAthletic James Etxegorri says Kepa is already at the level required.

"I would definitely agree that Kepa would be an upgrade over Keylor Navas," he said. "Based on current form, he is already a better goalkeeper. And he's only going to get better.

"Kepa has world-class reflexes, elite positioning and is a great leader. It is rare that a club like Real Madrid can improve a position while also getting younger, but that's exactly what would happen if they were to sign him."

From a Madrid perspective, it's not hard to see the allure, particularly if they were to snare him on a free transfer.

            

Forward and Future

If Kepa were to come through the entirety of 2017/18 with no further injuries and a consistent spell of form, it would be difficult to keep pointing to relative inexperience as a reason to hold him back.

After all, every top young player has to start finding that experience by playing and being allowed to make mistakes—and learn from them—along the way.

With setbacks in recent years in going after De Gea and Donnarumma, perhaps this opportunity will be one Madrid cannot afford to miss out on. They might feel they are forced into making the move before Kepa either goes elsewhere or signs a long-term deal with a high buyout clause.

coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur on October 17, 2017 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

Would he improve Madrid?

Technically, he may be the equal of Navas, or close to it, but the Costa Rican is relentless in his performances, so perhaps not.

There's also the fact to consider that Zidane is loyal to those who impress him.

But in a year, it could be a different story. An injury could give Kepa the chance, meaning he's forced to showcase his best form, making it a transition year when he and Navas rotate—or Kepa gets a loan spell elsewhere to continue getting game time.

Longer-term, he's surely one of the best bets in La Liga to be an international option for Spain and a target for the top clubs. If Real Madrid act now, they could secure their elite future in yet another position.

         

Twitter.com/karlmatchett

Facebook.com/karlmatchett.football

All quotes obtained firsthand.

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