Liverpool: Is Simon Mignolet or Pepe Reina the Better Option as Goalkeeper?
Suddenly, Liverpool look stacked in the goalkeeping department.
Following the £9 million signing of Belgian international Simon Mignolet from fellow Premier League club Sunderland, as reported by BBC Sport, long-time first-choice keeper Pepe Reina now has serious competition on his hands.
And that’s not counting Brad Jones, who has shown decent form standing in for Reina over the past few years. Jones will surely drop down to third-choice custodian at Anfield for the season, now that Reina appears to be staying at Liverpool, according to the Liverpool Echo.
While two international-class goalkeepers dueling it out for the No. 1 jersey is, without a doubt, an excellent selection headache for Brendan Rodgers and his coaching staff to have, there will come a time where one will have to be chosen as the firm starting option in goal.
Is Mignolet or Reina the better option? Let’s look at their respective cases and who Liverpool should choose in the long run.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
The Case for Pepe Reina
First, let’s consider the incumbent, Spanish international and Liverpool's No. 25 Pepe Reina.
Signed by Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2005 in a ruthless transfer to replace the Champions League-winning Jerzy Dudek, Reina promptly won Liverpool the FA Cup in 2006 with his heroics in the penalty shootout. He went on to establish himself as one of the finest goalkeepers in the Premier League, if not all of Europe.
Reina raised the bar for Liverpool goalkeepers with his record in between the Anfield sticks, breaking a succession of records and becoming the quickest goalkeeper in Liverpool history to keep 50 clean sheets.
His technique on the ball and distribution from goal kicks made him a fine sweeper-keeper option for the Reds while his punches off crosses and penalty saves over the years have earned him a fine reputation as an all-rounded keeper.
Just as importantly, Reina is known for his leadership in the Liverpool dressing room, and his willingness and enthusiasm as a great teammate. Even outside of the Liverpool setup, when he plays second, or sometimes third, fiddle to Iker Casillas in the Spanish national team, Reina has been a ringleader of celebrations and an unselfish leader who is the first to congratulate his teammates.
It is this integral role that Reina plays on the pitch as an on-field organizer, and off it as a leader, that have led many Reds fans to call for his stay with the club despite a drop in form in recent seasons that has seen his error rate rise significantly.
On paper, Reina has all the attributes to continue starring as Liverpool’s first-choice keeper for years to come. His achievements and dedication to the Reds' cause will ensure that, barring any extraordinary circumstance, he remains a Kop favorite.
The Case for Simon Mignolet
There comes a time when footballers inevitably start to decline, and unfortunately for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool, Pepe Reina had already started looking shakier and far from his best when the current manager took charge at Anfield last summer.
Cue the need to bring in fresh legs and some keen competition for the seven-season veteran.
After the likes of Alexander Doni and Brad Jones were tried, tested and ultimately proven to be second-rate second choices, the newest goalkeeping addition at Anfield represents a marked change in strategy.
Simon Mignolet wasn't brought from Sunderland to sit on the bench. He came on the back of an impressive season manning the posts at the Stadium of Light, and was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the English top flight last season.
What does Mignolet bring to the table, aside from an infectiously catchy chant? A look at Matt Walsh's statistical analysis for EPLIndex.com shows that Mignolet is every inch an equal to his new Anfield colleague, if not superior, when it comes to saves, catches and punches.
Mignolet played for a club that ultimately finished one place above the relegation zone in 17th place. He had 54 goals conceded and made more than double Reina's total number of saves and punches while keeping only three fewer clean sheets than Reina and maintaining a close record of goals conceded per game.
More encouragingly for Liverpool—and perhaps more importantly—is Mignolet's clear improvement with each season. Andrew Beasley's compilation at basstunedtored.com shows excellent downward trends in terms of both errors committed and crosses missed over a period when Reina's went up.
So, in Mignolet, not only are Liverpool getting a young goalkeeper who is still just 25 and capable of delivering fine performances, but one who is still developing and improving.
That means the future looks bright in between the Anfield sticks.
In the Short Term
In the immediate context, it's hard to look past Pepe Reina retaining his No. 1 spot for the time being, provided that he does stay at Anfield past Aug. 31.
The momentum built up from the closing months of the 2012-13 season saw Liverpool finish the campaign in impressive form with their January signings Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge settling in with their new team immediately and turning in some blistering performances.
An unmissable swagger was evident in a few high-scoring matches, a confidence that simply wasn't present in the first few months of Brendan Rodgers' reign. Along with it came a sense of cohesion and understanding that was missing in the disjointed displays in the start of the campaign.
In the short term, simply knowing that this is a team that is maturing into a new style of football, having a veteran—though still aged 30 and just turning 31 on transfer deadline day—who knows the passing game, will be key to carrying the good form from last season.
At previously noted, Simon Mignolet's does have weaknesses in the passing department. Whether his much inferior stats when compared to Reina were down due to playing for a team that encouraged long-ball football for the most part under Martin O'Neill or simply due to undeveloped distribution skills, remains to be seen.
A relatively comfortable first 10 games of the season for Liverpool should see an ambitious Reds team trying to keep up their performance level and go for the jugular from the first game of the season, and Reina should keep goal as Mignolet starts to find his feet at Anfield.
In the Long Term
As time goes on, however, it will be Simon Mignolet who is groomed for the long-term spot as the No. 1 keeper at Liverpool, provided that his development goes as smoothly as hoped.
Long linked with a move back to his first club Barcelona, as reported by the Daily Mail, Pepe Reina might not be around at Anfield for much longer, especially with Victor Valdes confirming via BBC Sport that he is to leave Camp Nou when his contract expires in 2014.
So, while Brad Jones keeps his No. 1 shirt for the time being as Mignolet takes on his favorite No. 22, the role of first-choice goalkeeper looks set to be given to Mignolet, who will use his first season as a settling period in preparation for Reina's eventual departure.
Without European football at all this season, Liverpool's focus will inevitably be on regaining a place in the prized top-four slot in the Premier League table, with domestic cup runs sure to be on the agenda in 2013-14.
Mignolet will see plenty of opportunities provided to him in the domestic cups, starting with the League Cup, but Brendan Rodgers' claims (via the Mirror) that he was brought in to provide direct competition for Reina, will encourage a healthy rivalry for the starting spot.
It will be a surprise if, come this time next year, Mignolet has not established himself as Liverpool's new starting goalkeeper.
How Reina Can Help Mignolet
To be sure, replacing Pepe Reina is a daunting task for any keeper, and he would not have held onto the No. 1 spot for seven seasons if he weren't one of considerable class and ability.
At a time where the gloves look set to be handed over, as the Spanish international looks closer to ending his Liverpool career within a year's time, there is plenty that Reina can do for his rival at Anfield, much like he does at international level with Spain for Iker Casillas and sometimes Victor Valdes.
The first, most obvious part is distribution, an area Reina clearly has an upper hand and is well versed in, right from his early days at Barcelona's La Masia academy. In his time in a Red shirt, he has performed the role of a sweeper keeper—perhaps the first high-profile of his kind in the Premier League—to aplomb.
For Simon Mignolet to succeed in a system where the goalkeeper plays as integral a role in the buildup play as ball-playing defenders and all-rounded midfielders, he needs to take full advantage of an expected transition year and pick up the skills and experience from Reina.
One of the most vocal leaders in the Liverpool dressing room, Reina also has a huge opportunity to develop his eventual successor as an on-field organizer of the defence, as well as an influential member of the team and as a leader.
If Reina performs to his expectations, both on and off the field, then not only will Liverpool enjoy a positive start to the season, but Mignolet will benefit immensely under his tutelage.
Liverpool fans would also have yet another reason to remember Reina fondly—for leaving behind another Golden Glove.