Liverpool’s unsung hero – Simon Mignolet

Mignolet LiverpoolI could have easily trotted out something on the impending arrival of Mario Balotelli and his potential impact for better or worse on Liverpool. Likewise in a week consumed with the brilliance of Raheem Sterling, the stone cold killer goal scoring instincts of Daniel Sturridge and the all round abjectness of Lucas Leiva and Glen Johnson I could have waxed lyrical on or ranted whichever the case may be.

It felt wrong for me though to do this given I have been left with an overwhelming feeling that the key man in Liverpool’s win over Southampton merely obtained cursory nods. A player who many at times (including this author) was unsure as to his long-term credentials as a first team player at the club.

Simon Mignolet is, and has been, something of an enigma to Liverpool fans. His arrival signalled the replacing of one of the fans most loved players  and the best goalkeeper it had in a generation in Pepe Reina. The majority of the fan base expected Brendan Rodgers at the time to look for a goalkeeper whose distribution in terms of speed and accuracy to be at least on a par with Reina’s. After all a manager who has espoused retention of the ball and domination through possession would want a keeper who is steeped in the same philosophy, one who’s passing ability was on a par with his outfield teammates. What was clear with Mignolet however was that despite him being a midfielder until the age of 15 quick feet are not something he has yet in his repertoire.

His first Premier League game for Liverpool was very much his first season in a microscope. The fans who were used to a proactive keeper in Reina who often waylaid the need to make a save by simply being able to read where the player was shooting and positioning himself in that part of the goal for what would look like a routine pick up. Now seeing a reactive keeper in Mignolet there was small murmurings as the first half progressed against Stoke especially as he looked uncomfortable and nervy when in possession of the ball, far from convincing  with high balls in the box and had the distinct impression of an accident waiting to happen. He stopped coming for crosses and the defence slowly dropped deep on top of him.

The second half carried on in much the same vein until the 65th minute when he made a good save. Confidence was restored. Then the last minute penalty, he steps up and saves splendidly, the rebound falls perfectly to Kenwyne Jones and Mignolet’s speed off the ground allowed him to make an incredible double save. The fans in the ground celebrated the save as you would a goal. Mignolet’s earlier issues dwindled and the wonder stop remained. A new Anfield keeper had arrived and maybe those opening day issues were just natural nerves.

His strengths are clearly his elite level shot stopping ability. I’m not talking the classic overused cliché that he’s a good shot stopper. He makes incredible stops and incredibly important ones especially in 1 v 1 situations. His ability in 1v1 situations is Peter Schmeichel-esque as is his starfish saves in those positions. For one of the best examples of this I urge anyone to rematch his 1 v 1 saves against Romelu Lukaku in Goodison last year. He times his advancement on the onrushing striker to perfection and the spread in his body he identifies as the striker is moving towards the strike of the ball is sensational. Mignolet that day won Liverpool a share of the points, he did this on numerous occasions over the season. It is this elite level of shotstopping which has always retained in me the hope that Mignolet could develop into an elite level keeper.

The sad truth though for goalkeepers is these saves simply blur into the action of the game, mistakes however are always remembered due to their more infrequent nature and the often absurd nature (Packie Bonner in World Cup 94 v Holland, Jerzy Dudek v Forlan, Reina v Everton, Iker Casillas v Atletico in the Champions League Final, Peter Enckleman v Birmingham, Scott Carson for England, David James v everyone etc etc). If a goalkeeper looks unsure in an action they are doing then these issues are honed in on by fans and analysts alike. Think of David De Gea when he first arrived,  even the perception people initially had of Schmeichel and his kicking. Mignolet clearly has areas he needed to improve on after last season.

Across the season the same issues kept cropping up.  His footwork was laboured giving many fans heart in throat moments as strikers bore down on a keeper who just about managed to get the ball out and cleared. Fast thrown passes turning defence into attack in an instant  were few and far between. Rarely did we see our keeper venture from far his goal line and dominate his penalty area. Mid season games with Chelsea and Manchester City saw Mignolet make high-profile errors in both opening goals. While slightly unfortunate with the Alvaro Negredo strike, his weak hand on the Samuel Eto’o goal in Stamford Bridge added more questions to a growing list of perceived deficiencies. Was this a goalkeeper who would also struggle mentally in the big games?

As the season entered the run-in a Mignolet appears to have a seminal moment away to West Ham. Big Sam the man who outacticked Jose decided to go full-Sam putting set piece after set piece on top of Mignolet. Immediately this reaped rewards as the big keeper decided to try wrongly hold a cross when under pressure from Andy Carroll. Carroll battered him, the ref missed the foul and a goal was scored. A collective sigh could be heard across the fan base as it appeared Mignolet was no heir to Ray Clemence, Bruce Grobbelaar or Pepe Reina but a mere clone of Sander Westerveld or Jerzy Dudek.

Within five minutes of this goal another set piece was awarded and West Sam lumped in another ball. This time Mignolet powered through the crowd and appears to have punched his demons into the middle of the next millennia. The games following this Mignolet becomes positively more vocal, in shot on camera or at the grounds his voice begins to be heard more often. His passing and its accuracy improved with a clearer idea of where each pass was going as the ball as he received the initial pass. To paraphrase Rodgers; Mignolet felt his jersey becoming a lot lighter.

When discussing Mignolet on the podcast I was firmly of the view that his performances from last season would give him this season to show if he was capable of moving up another level. I felt if he didn’t then come summer 2015, Rodgers would look to replace him. At 26, this is a season of defining where Mignolet’s performance ceiling will end up.  He couldn’t have answered Rodgers or the fans doubts for the season ahead in a better way. For me I witnessed the clear signs of a transformation in his game in comparison to performances last year.

Lets start at the most basic improvement – where he stands in the box when not involved. His starting position always looked deep, even at games I attended last season, he rarely stood outside the 18 yard box despite his teammates laying siege to the opponents final third. This wasn’t the case on Sunday. Mignolet was a lot higher in his starting position, often higher than the D on the 18 yard box which enabled him to sweep any over hit passes and prevented his central defenders dropping deep. Brownie point on the board. Crosses – tick, Mignolet dealt with all balls you want a keeper to deal with. While it may not have looked pretty in how he dealt with them it gave new centre back pairing Lovren and Skrtel confidence as they knew Mignolet would come once the cross entered an eight yard zone from goal.

Added to this was a new-found accuracy in his mid range passing to full backs from goal kicks. Faults being addressed. Then there was the vocality in his play. As Anfield was rather subdued in comparison to the final three months of last season a lot of the shouting could be picked up on camera. At times you could hear him talking to his defenders to push on and other organisational instructions around set pieces and corner kicks. This in terms of potential are things which can see a player make a quantum leap in terms of performance level.

With all these small improvements in the weaker areas of his game the key then is to see these being new components added as opposed to replacements for weakening previous strong areas. No weakening was evident on this performance. Midway through the first half Ward-Prowse had a free kick which was set up perfectly for an inswinger, an already dangerous eventuality for any keeper – even top level ones. With the wind behind him the player would know that he could get an unnatural dip and flight if executed correctly. His strike was perfect  but unfortunately for him Mignolet exhibited wonderful corrective footwork to enable him to divert the wickedly dipping crossed shot away for a corner. People said it looked unconvincing, as a former goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach, I would have been delighted with this from one of my own keepers. This save, while not looking incredible, was in fact exceptional due to the adjustments needed to make it. His choice to parry it away was correct as he subsequently collided heavily with the post, if he holds the ball and collides there is a big chance his spills the ball on his line. He followed this up with another brilliant backward full stretch dive to tip a long-range strike from Schneiderlin over the bar just before half time, again a crucial intervention when his own team have a one goal lead.

After Southampton equalised and had Liverpool on the rack he again comes up trumps with two simple looking stops. The second one was anything but simple when it appeared as though Clyne would add to his tally. As the strike is hit Mignolet had transferred his weight on to his left foot, his collapse dive to offset the footwork is textbook, his handling on a close distance well struck shot is even better, it prevented a simple tap in for Pelle who was following it up. This save happens at 1-1 10 minutes later Sturridge scores the 2nd goal – no one will remember a routine looking save but how different would the game have looked had Southampton gone 2-1 up with 20 minutes to play.

His final piece of brilliance was reserved for a wonder touch which deflected Schneiderlin’s goal bound strike at the end of 90 minutes. The touch could only be seen by anyone in the replay but once you see the touch its clear that it was essential to ensure the redirection on to the cross-bar. Mignolet wins Liverpool the three points in as much as the brilliance of Sterling did on the day.

He heads to the Etihad Stadium in full confidence and has a chance to put to bed an error which coughed up an equaliser last season. Based on the mental toughness he’s exhibited since that West Ham game I’m expecting nothing less than what he displayed against Southampton, LFC will need this as they look to take three points from a team who do not lose matches at home and have some of the most formidable forwards in England. He still has issues such as the speed of his distribution as he requires at least two touches in general on receipt of a pass and he needs to maintain his new found proactive play in his goalkeeping even if something goes wrong.

If he does repeat his heroics and Liverpool win the match do not expect his name to be in the headlines. I’m sure Simon Mignolet will be happy to be spending the majority of the season as a mere cursory mention for an occasional save as this will be a symbol of his progression. A hero happy to be forgotten but as essential as all the Sterlings, Sturridges, Balotellis and Coutinhos as Liverpool look to mount a credible challenge in the title race.

The Author

Philip Casey

LFC Fan, Producer/Editor and co-founder of the LFC Daytrippers podcast and website. Contributor to LFC Fanzine We Are Liverpool. Sometime GK Coach, Husband, Father and ex footballer. Basically no spare time ever.

One thought on “Liverpool’s unsung hero – Simon Mignolet

  1. Boss read mate. I’ve argued to many people he’s one of the best shot-stoppers around anywhere today, but it’s clear where his problems have been. I really like him, hope he can show some great displays this year.

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