Monday 19 August 2019

Aidan O'Hara: Liverpool can't reach an elite level with Mignolet in goal

'With Mignolet, he's been overlooked three times under two different managers.' Photo: AFP/Getty
'With Mignolet, he's been overlooked three times under two different managers.' Photo: AFP/Getty
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Towards the end of the third day's play in the first Ashes Test between England and Australia in Brisbane, Mitchell Starc bowled a ball at 144 kilometres per hour and, 22 yards away, it smashed into the helmet of England captain Joe Root.

Root's initial movement was a step forward, then he realised he had misjudged where the ball had bounced, knew he should have taken a step backwards, tried to do so while getting his bat up to protect his face and, finally, winced and prepared for impact. That's a lot of things to have going through your mind when you have just under half a second to make the right decision.

What made it so rare was that Root, like the rest of the world's best batsmen, usually has superb footwork and an exceptional ability to judge the length of the delivery in order to play a shot, again, all in less than half a second. Some would argue he was unlucky to be hit, others that he was lucky not to be hurt but, for Root, it all came down to momentary indecision which, at the highest level, is often punished.

At Anfield later the same day, Simon Mignolet prepared for a shot to come from Willian as he approached the 18-yard box but, as the Chelsea player moved wider, his body position and the angle available to him made a back post cross his most viable option. Mignolet, however, still looked prepared for a shot.

The goalkeeper was obviously a little unlucky that the cross dropped into the far corner for a Chelsea equaliser but, like Root, he seemed to be prepared for one thing but unable to react quickly enough when something else happened.

Everything looks easy in slow motion and freeze-frame but, at the highest point of its arc, Willian's shot has already travelled approximately 10 yards and yet Mignolet's left foot is still in the position that it was at the point when the ball was struck.

After transferring his weight, Mignolet takes a couple of steps before diving and ends up about two inches away from getting enough on the ball to tip it behind for a corner and preserve Liverpool's lead. Those couple of inches are gained if he could have reacted to the length of Willian's delivery a split second quicker.

Had he managed to reach the ball, Mignolet would have been lauded for the magnificence of the save which gives some indication about the standard on which he is being judged. But the point is that it is at this elite level which Liverpool are trying to compete and while there might be a dozen or so other goalkeepers in the league who wouldn't have reached Willian's effort, the likes of David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech and Hugo Lloris would expect to save it.

In the past few seasons, Liverpool have been close to the level of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham - but their goalkeeper isn't anywhere near that calibre.

If that quartet of goalkeepers weren't on form in recent years, they could potentially be replaced by Argentina's first choice Sergio Romero, Bosnia's No.1 Asmir Begovic, Colombia's finest David Ospina or an established Premier League goalkeeper like Michel Vorm. None of them, it's reasonable to argue, would ever be dropped in favour of Loris Karius.

Jurgen Klopp, however, has twice left out Mignolet in favour of the German and both appear to be in competition to see who can be Liverpool's regular second-choice and the least worst of them ends up starting.

At elite clubs, goalkeepers are under the harshest of spotlights and many don't get the chance to redeem themselves even after being left out once. With Mignolet, he's been overlooked three times under two different managers.

Brendan Rodgers was the first to drop the Belgian, for "an indefinite period" in December 2014, and replaced him with Brad Jones, a goalkeeper who somehow now plays in the Champions League with Feyenoord, having not been deemed good enough to play in the eircom League 15 years ago at Shelbourne. Jones was injured a fortnight later, and Mignolet was back.

Fast-forward to September 2016 when Mignolet was part of the Liverpool team who beat eventual champions Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge but didn't play a league game for another two months as Karius was favoured with Mignolet relegated to starting League Cup games.

"In this moment we have a number one and that's Loris Karius," said Klopp, 13 months ago. "That's the situation and what the goalkeepers know. I cannot leave them in doubt."

The lack of doubt lasted until December when Mignolet returned, played out the rest of the season and then found himself left out against Arsenal at the end August of the current campaign with Klopp insisting he was being "rested".

Mignolet is a decent, Premier League-standard goalkeeper in the manner of Lukasz Fabianski who can have superb games or make mistakes nobody remembers while playing for Swansea yet still end up with the nickname of "Flappy-Handski" because of a few errors he made under the spotlight at Arsenal.

Harsh

It's harsh, and occasionally unfair, that Mignolet is so often in the firing line but, with a couple of minutes remaining, holding onto a one-goal lead in a crucial game, every elite club needs their goalkeeper to be able to make a save that the average one can't and, once again on Saturday, Mignolet was unable to step up.

Last summer, Liverpool were willing to spend £40m on an occasional starter like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but providing a decent level of goalkeeping competition would have been a far better investment, given how difficult it is to envisage Mignolet being a key man in any Premier League or Champions League-winning campaign - the level to which they are meant to aspire.

Had it not been for the ineptitude of Dejan Lovren, Mignolet could easily have been the fall-guy for the 4-1 defeat to Tottenham but, with a contract until 2021, Mignolet is unlikely to be going anywhere for the near future. It all means that Klopp, having not been able to find an improvement, could end up like Joe Root in facing a nasty headache but with only himself to blame.

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