The case for Simon Mignolet

The case for Simon Mignolet

In May of 2015, Simon Mignolet was voted Liverpool’s player of the year by the former players association, to the general bemusement of a lot of fans and observers. He had not yet achieved the notoriety that followed him the next season but had already been dropped for a brief period that season, with Brad Jones being his replacement. With due respect to Brad Jones, any self-respecting goalkeeper of note would hang his head in shame if that were to happen to him.

However, in a disappointing first season, after Luis Suarez departed, and poor individual seasons spread all around the squad, Mignolet ended up losing out to Joe Hart by only one clean sheet in the race for the Golden Glove. Surprisingly, that battle went all the way until the last day of the season.

He had more clean sheets than any other Premier League goalkeeper in 2015 and was rewarded with a new five-year deal by Jurgen Klopp in January 2016.

While Mignolet was always prone to an occasional error, it was in 2016 that he developed a bit of a reputation as a Jekyll and Hyde character. While he has always been an excellent shot stopper, his kicking was never one of his strongest suits, and in Klopp’s system, it was horribly exposed. This part of his game, along with his preference for punching rather than catching balls directed into the box, led to a few high-profile mistakes. Opta compounded matters by releasing a stat in April of that year, showing Mignolet to be the player who had committed the most errors leading to a goal that season.

By any account, Mignolet had a poor season and I doubt any player made Liverpool fans squirm or skip a heartbeat (not in a good way) more than him. It was no surprise then that Loris Karius was brought in as the new number o in the summer.

Karius got injured in pre-season and then struggled with the scrutiny when he got his chance, and Mignolet got thrust into the limelight again. Perception is a funny thing, and it seems like most fans and observers have carried images of Mignolet flapping at balls and kicking balls into the sidelines from last season into this campaign. He has continued to receive flak throughout this season, with calls already growing for another keeper next season, even though Karius has only just arrived. Does that mean that Mignolet is not even good enough to be the secondary goalkeeper?

Mignolet has actually had a decent campaign. In a season in which a semblance of a Klopp team is being put in place, Liverpool’s plans have been thwarted by injuries to its main centre backs, or unavailability due to a conflict with a national association, as in Matip’s case.

Mignolet has made two high-profile errors this season, being culpable in the free kick that led to David Luiz’s goal against Chelsea at home and dropping the ball at the feet of Alfred N’Diaye in the next game at Hull, even though his defence did him no favours by leaving the Senegal forward completely unmarked. He should also have probably done better with a Jonathan Walters header beating him at the near post in the 4-1 win against Stoke at home.

He has been solid otherwise, even though he still prefers to punch the balls arriving into the box more than actually catch it. His kicking has improved a lot, but it could still get better. He has rescued Liverpool on many occasions this season, starting with the penalty save off Theo Walcott on the first day of the season. He has stood up to be counted in big games, with the games away at Spurs and Manchester United coming to mind. His reflex save off Ibrahimovic’s fierce free kick and a superb one-handed block off Mkhitaryan come to mind from the game at Old Trafford. He saved another penalty off Diego Costa in the same game that he let in Luiz’s free kick, partially atoning for his error. In recent games, he has really stepped up his game with immense performances at home against Arsenal, again, and the away win at Stoke last week. His manager has publicly come out and stated that Mignolet had saved Liverpool in both games.

A lot is made of his saves to shots ratio, but as Opta themselves recently pointed out while analysing Claudio Bravo’s troubles at Manchester City, the quality of the defence a goalkeeper plays behind impacts the quality of the shots that a goalkeeper has to face. You can use all the historical data one can get on the build-up, distance, angle and placement of shots, and evaluate ‘Expected Goals’ – the quality of any chance a player has, and how likely it is to be saved, but a lot of times, the Liverpool defense don’t give Mignolet much of a chance.

A part of the reason why past Liverpool players voted for Mignolet in 2015 was for the strength of character he showed in bouncing back from immense criticism and being dropped that season. He has shown more of that quality this season, taking the chances afforded to him after Loris Karius failed to make the number one jersey his own.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Klopp did not go shopping for another keeper in the summer. Mignolet’s performances this season should keep Karius on his toes, and hopefully, both of them will come back stronger next season.

Simon Mignolet this season has been more Jekyll and less Hyde, and if that continues, Liverpool still have a good goalkeeper to count on. I have a feeling that a settled centre-back pairing will help highlight that to the doubters out there.