Wednesday 23 August 2017

Comment: Anyone still suggesting Liverpool need a new goalkeeper this summer has not been paying attention

Liverpool's Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet appears to save a shot from Watford's French midfielder Etienne Capoue, though a goalkick was given, during the English Premier League football match between Watford and Liverpool at Vicarage Road Stadium in Watford, north of London on May 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS
Liverpool's Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet appears to save a shot from Watford's French midfielder Etienne Capoue, though a goalkick was given, during the English Premier League football match between Watford and Liverpool at Vicarage Road Stadium in Watford, north of London on May 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS

Chris Bascombe

Goalkeeping for Liverpool, or indeed any top club, is the art of doing very little exceptionally well.

It’s a concept with which numerous Anfield No 1s have struggled over the last three decades, but in their pursuit of Champions League football a seasonal problem has gradually eroded.

That’s why we need to talk about Simon Mignolet.

The Belgian has been very, very good this year and for the last four weeks he has elevated his game. Should Jurgen Klopp’s side collect the points they need to secure a top-four spot, a campaign which started with the forward line swatting aside opponents will have ended with The Kop applauding Mignolet’s calm assurance.

Mignolet did not take the man-of-the-match award against Watford on Monday night, but the sight of him routinely catching crosses and resisting the physical advances of strikers who would have bullied him a few years ago was as eye-catching as Emre Can’s scissor-kick.

It was Mignolet’s contribution that earned Liverpool three points at Stoke recently. He was similarly impressive at West Bromwich Albion. He did not have much to do, but he was there as and when required.

Perhaps it is maturity. Maybe it was the recognition in mid-season, when he was dropped and then restored for Loris Karius, that it was closing time in that last-chance saloon. Had he not won his place back, reluctantly, but inevitably, Mignolet would have been considering his future this summer.

Maybe the 29 year-old just really hates those Joe Hart adverts and wants to spit venom at whoever keeps erroneously linking him with Anfield.

Wherever this more trustworthy, less fragile goalkeeper has come from, anyone still suggesting Liverpool need a new No 1 this summer has not been paying attention.

It may have taken four years – and only those judging to flawless standards will be intolerant of occasional mistakes in future – but Mignolet has been more consistent for a while.

As his deputy Karius discovered, playing for Liverpool is as much about concentration as reflexes and agility.

Being a great shot-stopper (one would have thought this compulsory for a goalkeeper) isn’t enough because you do not have that many shots to save.

At the highest level of the Premier League, only those able to maintain focus after prolonged periods of inactivity thrive. That is why there is understandable cynicism when clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United are linked with goalkeepers excelling near the foot of the division. It’s a different game down there.

It is often the case that goalkeepers are the only players to emerge with credit from a failing side. Sorry Jordan Pickford.

When Liverpool signed Mignolet from Sunderland in 2013, the statistics were overwhelmingly favourable but offered an obstructed view.

Mignolet was not the first to struggle with the transition at Anfield, although some of it was not his fault.

His first Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, had spent the previous 12 months yearning for a sweeper keeper in the mould of Victor Valdes in his prime at Barcelona, and targeted a series of Dutchman as adept with their feet as hands.

Instead, Mignolet arrived looking like he did not know whether to kick the ball or hold a crucifix and a bulb of garlic to fend it off.

Mignolet’s confidence sapped with inconsistency. By the time Klopp took over, barely a week passed without references to a keeper on borrowed time. When Karius was signed last summer, it felt like the beginning of the end.

Instead, this was when Mignolet’s luck seemed to change because Karius has had none since his move to Merseyside. A pre-season injury prevented the German starting the campaign and then, when he was introduced – much to Mignolet’s dismay– the youngster suffered the same problems as the man he replaced.

Karius might as well have taken a book onto the pitch with him so underemployed was he in the first team games he played, but, when called upon, lapses of concentration – allied to the physicality of a new country – proved too much, too soon.

Yet the threat of Karius eventually returning impacted on Mignolet. He said recently his omission last September was the turning point of his career.

Now he has reached the prime age for a goalkeeper and Liverpool may finally be reaping the rewards of their long-term investment in him.

Liverpool are not back in the Champions League yet, and it remains the case that, because of injuries, the side edging closer has a vastly different character to the one that kicked off the season in August.

But if they complete the job they will have done so demonstrating a resilience that has been lacking, with the assistance of something they have craved for too long: a reliable goalkeeper.

Telegraph.co.uk

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