Analysing Simon Mignolet's Start with Liverpool
It was just after 2:30 p.m. on the opening day of this Premier League season at Anfield, but it could have been any time on any number grounds that Liverpool have played at over the last few years.
Almost 90 minutes' worth of effort, the creation of chances and no little quality had yielded just the one goal from Daniel Sturridge, and the Reds had entered a period of the game in which they've shot themselves in the foot so often in the recent past.
Sure enough, Daniel Agger then picked up the pistol, stared down at his boots, took aim and fired.
The Dane's handball had gifted Stoke City a late penalty, and suddenly all the negativity of previous seasons came flooding back. The chance to start afresh, to indicate that a good season was possible and to suggest that things might have finally taken a turn for the better looked lost, with the new campaign set to start with the type of flat result that has haunted the Reds over their last few years looking up at the Premier League elite.
Enter a Belgian goalkeeper who was making his competitive Liverpool debut.
Simon Mignolet sprang to his right to keep out the spot kick from Jonathan Walters before immediately getting to his feet to block the rebound from an onrushing Kenwyne Jones.
Anfield erupted, more in a state of defiance than anything. It was as if everyone inside the ground knew that everyone outside of it would have been waiting for the Reds to slip up, and the fact that Mignolet's save had ensured that wasn't going to happen made an instant hero of the goalkeeper.
For the man himself, it was a welcome as well as an instant impact.
The decision to loan Pepe Reina to Napoli was greeted with disappointment by some Reds fans who still felt that the Spaniard had much to offer the club—and the performances of the goalkeeper in Serie A so far certainly indicate his quality—but a clean break was probably best for both parties. Whether Mignolet was the best man to replace him was another matter entirely, though.
It is safe to say that many were unconvinced that the former Sunderland stopper had what it takes to guard the Reds goal when he arrived, and a nervy first half against Stoke hardly helped matters, but ever since then, Mignolet has barely put a foot wrong.
A strong candidate for the best goalkeeper in the division, the Belgian has slipped so seamlessly into Anfield life that it is possible to think that he's been there for hundreds of games, and not in fact that he's yet to get into double figures.
Despite already seeing the setup of his defence altered in his brief time at the club, Mignolet has remained a confident figure between the posts and has shown a great willingness to communicate with his defenders, as he indicated he does in his "French connection" with Kolo Toure, according to the Liverpool club website.
That approach will surely be applied to Toure's defensive colleague Mamadou Sakho too, but whoever plays in front of him, the goalkeeper looks to have the tools to command his area in a similar manner to Reina, something that Reds fans would have had reservations about when he joined.
They'd have seen him make fine, almost elastic-like saves for previous club Sunderland during his three years in the north east, something he has continued to do in virtually every game he's played for the Reds so far, but this commanding of his area and his distribution skills would have been the key concern for his new fans.
The quick throw out to Luis Suarez that ultimately ended in the Uruguayan's second goal in the win at Sunderland suggested that the latter quality is pretty strong too, and it'll need to be given the importance that Brendan Rodgers bases on possession and the fact that the current formation the Reds are playing lends itself very much to counter-attacking, too, especially away from home.
Of course, as with every aspect of this Liverpool season so far, the real, truer tests lie in the long months ahead, but Mignolet looks a fantastic addition for the Reds in an area where they have had quality in recent years, just not necessarily hunger.
Reina was and still is a fantastic goalkeeper, but after those nervy first few moments in front of the Kop against Stoke—moments in which he seemed to be slowly coming to terms with being a Liverpool player and being responsible for guarding that goal with a huge mass of red sat behind it—Mignolet is growing into a more than able replacement.
That penalty save from Walters kick-started what is turning into a promising season, and for that and perhaps so much more to come, the Reds have got their goalkeeper to thank.
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