LIVERPOOL’S newly acquired habit of winning ugly, predominantly away from home, in the recent tussles at Stoke City, West Brom and Watford has coincided with a form of redemption for Simon Mignolet.
The goalkeeper, much maligned by fans and pundits alike throughout the course of nearly four seasons at Anfield, is finally receiving unlikely plaudits for winning crucial points in Liverpool’s ongoing quest for a Champions League place.
Some supporters are still mildly concerned that Jürgen Klopp has publicly aired his backing for the Belgian and suggested that signing a new goalkeeper won’t be a summer priority. Klopp has hinted that the return of Danny Ward from his loan period at Huddersfield, to accompany the retention of Loris Karius, will represent the only competition for Mignolet’s hard-earned place next season.
However, even for his staunchest critics, there is at least acceptance Mignolet’s upturn in form is sufficient to extend what always feels like a rolling stay of execution without need for the familiar, almost obsessive clamour for his permanent removal.
In each of the narrow victories at the Bet365 stadium, The Hawthorns and Vicarage Road, Mignolet’s array of second half stops have been palpable evidence of his improvement. However, while his reaction saves from Charlie Adam and Saido Berahino, a late rush to deny Salomon Rondon and an unnoticed fingertip stretch to foil Etienne Capoue have caught the eye, it is a growing assurance and aggression reluctantly winning his doubters over.
Aside from the obvious saves which most obviously contribute to putting points on the board, Mignolet appears a more rounded goalkeeper; confident to stray from his line and catch or under the heavy physical challenge of burly Premier League centre-forwards primed to advance and punch with conviction. For the first time, there seems to be an understanding – when Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip line up in front of him – the default tactic is that the ‘keeper will come and deal with the high ball.
Another notable sign of a significant step-up in his game is in his kicking; whether through coaching or sheer practice on the training ground, where once his lofted clearances would struggle to reach halfway, he suddenly appears capable of a lower trajectory and landing the ball much further into enemy territory.
Much of the discontent surrounding Mignolet’s continued presence in Liverpool’s goal is a legacy of his inconsistency and indecisiveness over previous seasons. Despite a reputation for being a good shot stopper – which has become a cliché in itself – his Liverpool career was littered with too many basic errors for him to be viewed by most observers as anything but a liability.
The concession of 50 league goals in his first season was a prime reason cited for Liverpool failing to land a league title. The Reds’ attacking philosophy and defensive uncertainty undoubtedly played its part and although Mignolet had his moments, even on his best days the statistics weighed heavily against him. Notably in the Goodison derby, he thwarted a rampant Everton time and again but still saw his net breached three times. In the defining league defeats at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge over Christmas his culpability in goals conceded to Alvaro Negredo and Samuel Eto’o cast further doubts on Mignolet’s reliability.
When Brendan Rodgers lost faith in his goalkeeper midway through the following campaign, Mignolet suffered the ignominy of being dropped for Brad Jones. After reclaiming his place when Jones revealed his own limitations, Mignolet – amid much soul searching – strung together a series of promising performances – and a hitherto unseen readiness to command his penalty area – as Liverpool briefly threatened to salvage a Champions League spot.
Then, the wheels fell off the Rodgers bandwagon after successive defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal; a fraught season culminating in the 6-1 thrashing at Stoke and patience again wearing thin in the manager and goalkeeper.
When Klopp took over, with a refreshing take and renewed faith in the ability of all his players, Mignolet made a succession of key saves in a goalless draw at Spurs. The opening evidence available to Klopp was of a player performing capably until Scott Dann of Crystal Palace profited from a weak Mignolet parry on a sorry Anfield Sunday.
Then, a midweek aberration against Bordeaux saw the sheepish keeper penalised for holding onto the ball for 22 seconds to the exasperation of a growingly hostile Kop. The incident only served to underline his panic and uncertainty in distribution and a hesitant mind increasingly cluttered with the pressure of playing in front of ever more caustic onlookers.
Klopp was forced to publicly issue Mignolet a vote of confidence and later, to the bemusement of most supporters, an improved, lengthy contract in January. However, throughout the manager’s debut campaign there were enough clues, and insufficient surety in Mignolet’s game to conclude that Klopp wouldn’t look elsewhere for a long-term solution.
Beaten at his near post in the League Cup final against Manchester City, Mignolet later kept Liverpool in the contest with a string of saves but only reinforced his inconsistency in doing so. Against Sevilla in the Europa League final, he was powerless to prevent three second half goals but offered nothing in recompense as the Reds were swept away on the big European stage. Come the season’s end and the arrival of Karius, immediately heralded by Klopp as his first choice, seemed to finally spell the end of Mignolet’s Liverpool career.
Fate dealt a broken hand to the new recruit during pre-season and a temporarily reprieved Mignolet was back in situ for the opening game at The Emirates. Despite saving a Theo Walcott penalty the emphasis was on another three goals conceded, and a further two at Burnley did nothing to appease his detractors. No real blame could be attached to Mignolet but the clamour to see Karius regain fitness and displace him was as acute as ever.
Mignolet’s contribution to the draw at Spurs – a match-saving, twisting claw to repel a Toby Alderweireld header – and a sure presence under a second half onslaught in the win at Chelsea was largely overlooked. Karius – recovered from his injury – was drafted in and Mignolet benched, perhaps unfairly, before September was out.
Karius’s travails; an overall hesitancy, a reluctance to come off his line inducing panic in the defence and mistakes in consecutive games at Bournemouth and at home to West Ham saw Klopp reverse his thinking and bring Mignolet back in at Middlesbrough in December. He responded with two excellent stops and a clean sheet in a 3-0 win. Ever since, he has built on the promise of his early season form.
Although his most recent showings have cemented a widening, grudging respect, in truth Mignolet has been in tremendous fettle during most of the season, particularly against top six opponents. Liverpool’s impressive points return against the leading lights of the division is in no small part down to their goalkeeper.
He was outstanding at Old Trafford; among several, one save from a Zlatan Ibrahimovic free-kick taking the breath away. Against Spurs and Arsenal at Anfield he was called upon to deny Harry Kane and Olivier Giroud at critical moments in the contests. In isolation, this season tells a different Mignolet story; that of a goalkeeper with strong reflexes, sound positioning and impressive physicality.
If nothing else, his renewed standing is a triumph over adversity. For a goalkeeper derided for his unremarkable personality, he has shown an admirable bloody-mindedness to overcome the fiercest criticism. For a goalkeeper apparently lacking conviction and confidence he has developed a certain fortitude and self-belief and found his voice. Above all, he has won the confidence of his manager.
While he has clearly worked hard at his game and improved his most obvious weaknesses, Simon Mignolet might yet be proof of the old adage that goalkeepers only fully mature later in their career. If experience counts for anything, Mignolet has enough Anfield trauma on tap to draw further strength and continue to prove his doubters wrong.