IN a week in when Simon Mignolet invited more questions about his capability as Liverpool’s first-choice goalkeeper, Jürgen Klopp has once again backed the under-fire Belgian, first with words, then with a new, improved contract.
But with Danny Ward now back at Melwood and itching for a start after a sparkling loan spell in Scotland, is the boss right to stand by his No.1?
The cacophony for Klopp to take the unprecedented step of dropping the Belgian for 22-year-old Ward, as yet untested at Premier League level, reached fever pitch following another sub-par performance from Mignolet against Arsenal.
But with the ink on a new five-year-deal yet to dry, is Klopp blind to the problem between the sticks or is he actually being quite clever?
For all the fanfare, what could (and should) we expect from Ward when he is given the nod from the start? Is his manager actually doing him a favour by not throwing him in under what might be, to the outside world at least, a massive weight of expectation?
Having already recalled Ward from Aberdeen despite the presence of Adam Bogdan and rewarding him with a place on the bench against Arsenal and Manchester United, Klopp has sent a message that his patience isn’t limitless.
He isn’t scared of making a tough decision.
And a quick look at the ins-and-outs column in his first year at Dortmund is further testament to the ruthlessness behind the smile.
But whereas a blunder-blighted Bogdan is easily demoted, bombing a freshly signed-up Mignolet is a very different gamble.
By taking him out of the spotlight now in favour of Ward, Klopp could potentially wipe out any last shred of confidence the keeper might have.
The alternative scenario is the Ward wildcard could pay off massively. Tied to a five-year deal before his spell at Aberdeen, he is a young man who should get a bit of rope from an often impatient crowd and be allowed to bed in.
Compare and contrast that to the deep-seated mental fume that The Kop have with the current incumbent.
But in a risk v reward situation, maybe the chance of making a change backfiring is, in the manager’s mind, too much to take.
Or maybe, once the heat is off a little, Mignolet might pick up a stage-managed “niggle” and the pressure on his replacement would be far less intense.
If that time does come, what can we expect from Ward?
Ward’s success at Aberdeen has been well documented.
And the common consensus is that in the three short months he was at Pittodrie — a spell when he was ever present, keeping 12 clean sheets in 29 appearances — Ward established himself as the best keeper in the Scottish Premiership.
Some might scoff at the level of football but it’s at least comparable to some of the cup teams we’ve faced when our current custodians have still struggled.
Liverpool signed the then 19 year-old from Wrexham in 2012 for a fee reported to be around £100,000.
Working for NextGen back then, covering their now sadly defunct youth tournament, I watched the two goalkeepers in Liverpool’s squad, Tyrell Belford and the newly-signed Ward, with interest.
Over the course of the tournament, Ward was mainly used as back-up to the highly-rated Belford, now at Swindon Town.
He got his chance in the last two games of the competition and shipped six to an impressive Ajax side in a semi-final tie at St Helens’ Langtree Park.
On that evidence there was nothing to write home about if truth be told.
What was interesting was watching the pair in training and chatting to the coaches.
The balance of how much time was dedicating to the basics: line drills, shot practice, catching drills and so on, compared to the minutes that were put into the bonus elements: distribution, throwing, kicking technique and accuracy exercises, was certainly a marked change from watching Joe Corrigan hammer shots at Tony Warner and David James in the late 1990s.
At the time the academy was under the control of Frank McParland and Rodolfo Borrell and still adhering to the blueprint laid down by Pep Segura.
This is where it gets interesting. It was thought that Belford had a far more rounded game having been at the club for two years before Ward’s arrival. But it was also accepted that Ward had superior reflexes and athleticism, two of the traditionally stronger elements you would look for in a goalkeeper.
Which brings me to a quote from Gianluigi Buffon, the best goalkeeper of his generation, from a 2014 interview with James Horncastle: “In my opinion there are fewer and fewer great goalkeepers, because with respect to when I started they have to do so much more compared with in the past.”
Fast forward 12 months with a new broom having swept through the academy and McParland and Borrell both exiting stage left and the Segura blueprint abandoned. Ward was firmly established as the main man.
What isn’t in dispute is Ward’s progression over the last few seasons to the point where he could find himself making his debut for the Liverpool first team and it not be considered a shock.
One area that Ward has particularly improved is his kicking. Having made a point of sourcing and watching a handful of complete performances from his stint at Aberdeen for the sake of this article, it is noticeable that the speed and accuracy both out of his hands and off the ground have both markedly gone up a notch.
What is interesting is whether Ward would have been given the opportunities to progress had the changes at the academy not been implemented. And it raises a much larger question: what IS a good goalkeeper?
The easy answer is Manuel Neuer, who can do pretty much everything.
But Neuer apart, is their an accepted template of what an excellent goalkeeper looks like, or is it more subjective in the same way that all great strikers aren’t necessarily the same?
Compare David De Gea and Edwin van der Sar.
Since losing Peter Schmeichel 16 years ago, Manchester United have gone through a catalogue of goalkeepers trying to replace possibly the greatest they’ve ever had with very little success.
The two that they did manage to find couldn’t be any more different.
Van der Sar, at 6ft 5ins and as conservative as the Buckingham Branch of the WI, was as steady as they come; a calm head, huge frame and an unerring level of consistency.
The Dutchman might not have had the highlight reel of other keepers but you could set your watch by him.
For Van der Sar then, see Peter Cech now.
Now compare with David De Gea: flashy, brave, brilliant.
Much of what the 25 year-old Spaniard does is on instinct. Signed by United at an age young enough to adjust and progress his game, he is easily in the top five goalkeepers in Europe and has been United’s most valuable player for the last three seasons.
Lightning reflexes, fluidity of movement, elastic agility, fantastic speed over short distance and brilliant anticipation allied with accurate and attacking distribution, his cavalier approach to goalkeeping is at total odds with his predecessor.
And yet, ask a decent-sized sample of match-going Manchester United fans who they rate highest out of the two and you would struggle to confidently predict the outcome.
It has become the fashion for the modern goalkeeper to be as good with his feet as he is with his hands, but, as Buffon hints towards, are we pushing young goalkeepers too hard in peripheral areas at the expense of the basics (with De Gea and Neuer being the obvious exceptions to the rule)?
Barring one Bayern Munich freak of nature, there isn’t a goalkeeper in the world that has everything.
But in a high-pressure gegenpressing outfit, you would guess that physicality and reliability would be the preference over the ability to play out from the back.
Could Ward then, with his traditional skill set, be the answer?
At 6ft 4ins, he certainly has the stature. And from his showreel at Aberdeen it appears he might also have the skill set.
Whether he has the mental toughness is a completely different question but unless it’s tested how can you ever find out?
It’s unfortunate that the Exeter replay can’t be his first testing ground in front of a sell-out Anfield crowd. But should the hurdle be cleared, perhaps the waiting West Ham could prove as good a time as any to see whether Danny can ward off Liverpool’s defensive demons.