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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Willy Caballero will provide Chelsea a quietly reliable option in goal and a popular dressing room figure

From his time getting to know the Argentine goalkeeper during his spell at Manchester City, Richard Jolly explains the benefits Chelsea can expect from his arrival.

Goalkeeper Willy Caballero was one of three players released by Manchester City on Thursday, May 25, 2017.
Goalkeeper Willy Caballero was one of three players released by Manchester City on Thursday, May 25, 2017.

If it felt a little underwhelming at the time, that sense was exacerbated when Romelu Lukaku spurned Chelsea’s advances to join Manchester United. Antonio Conte’s first, and then only, summer signing was Willy Caballero. A reserve goalkeeper.

As the Argentine is understudying Thibaut Courtois, one of the world’s best goalkeepers, he was scarcely the player the team needed. But, besides being one the squad required, Caballero is the right character for Chelsea. The second-string keeper is occasionally invaluable and often irrelevant, forever in the squad and rarely on the pitch.

He has to have the temperament to cope with a unique situation; his outfield counterparts have more chance of playing. It is unsurprising others tire of such an existence. His immediate predecessor Asmir Begovic tired of life on the bench and decamped to Bournemouth, just as Petr Cech left for Arsenal after a year as Courtois’ deputy. The Czech’s rival David Ospina may now quit Arsenal in search of first-team football. Caballero is less likely to submit a transfer request.

It is not that he lacks ambition or does not take pride in playing. His favourite year at City was his last, because he played most. “I really enjoyed this season and my family enjoyed it,” he said in May, a few days before City released him.

The reference to his relatives was no coincidence. Few are more family-orientated. Caballero's elder daughter Guillermina has suffered from a rare cancer, losing the sight in one eye. He has a greater sense of perspective than most. He said in March: "When you are in a team sometimes you hear ‘Blah, blah, blah’ complaining all the time about small things. Life is the most important. Always.”

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It is why he promises to be a hassle-free recruit for Conte. He should be the antithesis of the volatile Diego Costa. A mature character is a likeable man. Caballero was unfortunate to lose his place at the Etihad Stadium to Claudio Bravo in April after outperforming the Chilean last season – the irony, given his new employers, is that the one game when he was found lacking was at Stamford Bridge – but did not complain. His professionalism was apparent amid the uncertainty if he would be granted a contract extension.

He wanted to stay at City, though it almost certainly would have been as a back-up. If being a reserve goalkeeper was not a lifestyle choice as such, it was notable that, when speaking to him a couple of months ago, how frequently he noted how happy his family were. It is safe to assume his contracts at City and Chelsea have been much the most lucrative of his career, and that undoubtedly helps in his decision. But it is also notable that Caballero, whose English is excellent, made more of an effort to adapt to life in Britain than some of his fellow native Spanish speakers.

He proved the sort of quietly reliable individual many at a club appreciate. Caballero did a disproportionate amount of the City players’ duties in the community and with the media in uncomplaining fashion. It was notable that, the day after the season finished and when he was almost certainly aware his time at the Etihad Stadium was over, he nevertheless visited a City-supporting family, the Rexstraws, to thank them for their backing, as part of an initiative from the club. He took Jesus Navas with him, but as the winger’s English remains limited, it was left to Caballero to communicate. He lent understanding and empathy in an ambassadorial role.

It helps explain why, when his departure was ratified the same week, director of football Txiki Begiristain’s tribute included the assertion that: “Willy is a special man.” His goalkeeping was also highlighted. It remains the case that Caballero won City their last trophy, his three penalty saves in the 2016 League Cup final penalty shoot-out against Liverpool proving decisive.

Such is the lot of the reserve goalkeeper, often an onlooker, occasionally essential. Saving shots is only part of the job. Exerting a positive, if indirect, influence in the dressing room is another. Caballero proved calm, selfless and popular at City, the sort of figure who gives a manager a critical mass of solid citizens in the camp. And that provides a base for Chelsea to build upon as they look for more seemingly exciting additions.