Connect in the back of the net

Ask anyone what the most important position on the pitch is and you’ll get a different answer every time. Arrigo Sacchi would tell you it’s the back four unit, Guardiola would say controlling the midfield is key to victory, ergo central midfield, and Jonathan Wilson argued it was the full back position. Any weakness on the pitch can be cruelly exploited if neglected, but for me the goalkeeper position is by far the most important and often the most underestimated.

Like any other position, a goalkeeper has to fit into his teams style of play. Just like John Terry getting found out in Villas-Boas’ high defensive line, it would be pointless Manuel Neuer lining up for West Brom next season (in fantasy land, obviously) as it would be a huge waste giving what attributes he posses.

Victor Valdes was certainly an underrated goalkeeper during his time with Barcelona but he complimented Guardiola’s team perfectly. There was definitely better ‘keepers out there at the time, but probably only a handful that could have played the role as successfully.

Liverpool fans are finding out first hand how important a good goalkeeper is, although this isn’t a new concept from a Liverpool perspective.

I started supporting Liverpool in the early 1990’s and it could be argued that in that time only Pepe Reina’s stint between 2006 – 2010 was the only period where the goalkeeper position wasn’t a problem. Since the 1990’s we’ve gone through David James, Brad Friedel, Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek, Pepe Reina and Simon Mignolet as first choice goalkeepers. That’s not to mention the string of awful second choice keepers that have come and gone (special mention to Charles Itandje for being the worst of that bunch).

It’s an uninspiring list to say the least and shows just how hard it is to get a decent goalkeeper. Even Ferguson famously struggled between the end of Schmichel’s reign between the sticks to finding his eventual successor several seasons later in Edwin van der Sar.

 

End of the Reina Era

When Rogers first took the helm at Liverpool everyone believed Pepe Reina would be idea to fit into this new philosophy. A La Masia graduate, trained the Barcelona way, comfortable in possession with great distribution. It was going to be a match made in heaven. Unfortunately it turned out horribly because Reina’s form fell off the edge of a cliff, and while he still had the aforementioned attributes, it felt at times like we had an outfield player in goal.

Like recently, a team would be scoring with every shot on target, mistake where becoming more prevalent and he had a disturbing tendency to get beat at his near post. The cardinal sin for a goalkeeper.

Liverpool then looked to Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet. A decent shot stopper (which is surely a prerequisite for a goalkeeper) but totally unsuited to how Rogers wanted him to play. I really thought we’d see big improvements from the Belgian upon Klopp’s arrival as he’d be asked to play like a traditional goalkeeper again. Back to basics if you like, concentrating on keeping the ball out the back of the net. If anything, Mignolet has regressed and has inexplicably been handed a new five year contract. You only hope the rumours are correct and that it’s a ploy to keep his value up going into the summer transfer window.

I honestly don’t feel it would even be beneficial to keep him as a back-up, if he’d even agree to that, as it gets to a certain point where the trust is gone and there is no way back. A clean break is needed for both parties.

 

Where did it all go wrong?

How has it got to this? Mignolet had an uneventful first six months at Liverpool, which is a good thing for a goalkeeper. A penalty save on his debut against Stoke being his peak moment in a Liverpool shirt. Mistakes in successive matches against Manchester City and Chelsea were where the first doubts arose.

The great Gigi Buffon stated: “As a goalkeeper you can make only one or two mistakes a season if you want to be the best. It’s in the big games where you see character because that is where you are most likely to make mistakes.”

Big players step up in the big games. Sadly, Mignolet wilted. That season ended with an unfortunate mistake from Stevie Gerrard and while Mignolet had zero culpability in that error, the moment Demba Ba bore down on the Kop goal, those split second thoughts that occur, you just knew he’d score. Baring down on a Hart or a Cech and you’d know it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. Demba Ba himself would be thinking the same thing racing toward a top quality keeper. Charging towards Mignolet and those niggling doubts would barely register.

Mignolet looks lost nowadays. The defence as a whole looks shell shocked and teams know that set pieces will cause us all sorts of problems. The distrust in the keeper spreads through the team like a virus. Conceding a corner feels like giving away a penalty such is the ineptitude of dealing with any high ball in the box, and many fans feel Mignolet’s Liverpool career has gone beyond the event horizon. The fact he’s received a new deal and the full backing of Klopp makes the whole situation more perplexing.

You only hope Klopp’s public backing is more to do with knowing a replacement won’t be sought after until the summer transfer window. It’s obviously a more advisable tactic than hanging him out to dry.

 

The stats don’t lie

Goalkeeping stats are hard to come by as it is so difficult to quantify. A goalkeeper might have had a 0% save rate, but the only shot on target was a penalty. The recent 5-4 thriller/calamity being a case point. Mignolet faced 4 shots on target (SoT) and conceded 4 goals. He had zero chance with three of the goals, and the the Naismith goal was right in the corner. Any further and it hits the post.

I’ll give Mignolet some leeway on this but feel other goalkeepers in the league save that shot. It’s when it’s repeated often that you start to take note as it doesn’t happen with such regularity to the top keepers.

@LFCData: “Of the last 19 shots on target that Mignolet has faced in PL, he’s conceded 12 goals. 63% of shots on target = goal.”

@Squawka: “Simon Mignolet’s last 3 league games at Anfield: 

Sunderland: 2 conceded, 0 saves 

Man Utd: 1 conceded, 0 saves

Arsenal: 3 conceded, 1 save”

@natefc: “Madness this – #LFC have conceded in 26 matches in all competitions this season conceding from the first shot on target in 21/26. #lfc”

 

The last one is absolutely damning

I don’t have the save percentage stats for the whole Premier League, just have the top 20 goalkeepers. You would expect Liverpool’s ‘keeper to be in the top 20 but unsurprisingly, Mignolet isn’t. The average Premier League save percentage among the top 20 goalkeepers comes to 70.19%. Mignolet currently stands at a lowly 58.23%.

Petr Cech holds a league high of 80.8% meaning the Arsenal stopper concedes only 2 goals for every 10 shots faced. Mignolet concedes double that. Put into perspective, Cech has faced 103 shots and saved nearly 81% of those, conceding 22 goals. By comparison, Mignolet has only faced 79 shots yet saved a far lower 58%, conceding 33 goals in the process.

This is where goalkeeping stats become murky as the quality of the shots are usually different but on face value, Mignolet doesn’t come out of any of this looking good.

 

The end game?

At a time when the Premier League isn’t blessed with too many ‘star’ names it has a plethora of goalkeeping riches. The league boasts De Gea, Courtois, Hart, Lloris and Cech, with the likes of Forster, Butland and Begovic behind that quintet. Liverpool really need to get in on the act of having a good goalkeeper. There are 13 games remaining and it’s a fine balancing act for Klopp. He could blood in youngster Danny Ward after recalling him from his highly successful loan spell at Aberdeen, which sounds good, except one or two mistakes and the whole fan base is on his back.

The other option is stick with an error prone goalkeeper and try and retain his value until July. More mistakes and it goes down. Benched for a player with no first team appearances and the value goes down.

Talk of Liverpool’s interest in Ter Stegen, Horn and Karius refuse to go away with Klopp seemingly wanting to bring in a goalkeeper he’s familiar with from the Bundesliga. The way Mignolet is playing you get the feeling Klopp’s most difficult decision will be deciding who he wants out of those three.

 

Written by Chris Steel

Follow Chris on Twitter @chris7steel

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