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Should Liverpool Stick or Twist with Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet?

Jack Lusby@jacklusby_Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2015

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09:  Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet walks out onto the pitch during the Liverpool training session at the Melwood training ground on December 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Rising unconvincingly to collect Chris Brunt's dipping corner 30 minutes into Liverpool's clash at home to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday evening, Simon Mignolet flapped, failed and let the ball drop for Salomon Rondon.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Craig Dawson of West Bromwich Albion scores a goal to make it 1-1 during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on December 13, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Adam
Adam Fradgley - AMA/Getty Images

With the ensuing scramble concluded by Craig Dawson hooking home to put the Baggies level at 1-1, the pitfalls of Mignolet's game were once again magnified; the Belgian's weak intervention saw Tony Pulis' side capitalise and exert their physicality—something that Jurgen Klopp hoped to avoid at Anfield.

Throughout Sunday's encounter, West Brom dominated from set pieces, with Jonas Olsson scoring once and having another ruled out for offside—both the result of wide deliveries.

However, Klopp remained staunch in his faith when asked about Mignolet's contribution in the post-match press conference, per Andy Kelly of the Liverpool Echo:

I said to Simon at half time, 'if somebody says it is your fault, you can say it's not true, it's my fault.' Because I want a keeper who helps. I want a keeper who comes out and tries everything, with 20 players around him, he tried but didn't get the ball for the first goal.

The disallowed goal was offside and the next one I will have to see again. It was at the short (near) post, usually it is not the goalkeeper's responsibility. We have people there who have to make the header and defend this.

They had six or seven players who are six feet four or taller, it's really difficult for us to defend. We tried it, we have to do better, we will work on it but nothing to say negative about Simon.

First goal of course for me he tried and that's important. It's really difficult in England because there is no-one to protect goalkeepers. But I want him to come out because he can help.

Sometimes you try something and it's a fault but it's not the biggest problem.

Klopp embraces Mignolet's endeavour, but for many Liverpool supporters this does not wash, with widespread calls to replace the former Sunderland man at the nearest opportunity pervading social media throughout Sunday's outing.

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Instead, however, reports on Monday night continued to suggest that Mignolet is set to sign a new contract with the club, as relayed by Andy Hunter of the Guardian.

But is Klopp right to back his underfire goalkeeper at this stage, or should the German be looking to sign a new No. 1? 

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04:  Simon Mignolet of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park on October 04, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Strengths

During his time with Borussia Dortmund, Klopp was never blessed with a world-class goalkeeper—far from it.

Roman Weidenfeller is renowned for his stability and level-headedness, but he is removed from the top-level crop of German goalkeepers that includes Manuel Neuer, Kevin Trapp and Bernd Leno among others.

Belgium's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet jumps for the ball during a training session on November 12, 2015 in Brussels on the eve of a friendly football match between Belgium and Italy. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY

==BELGIUM OUT==        (Photo credit
BRUNO FAHY/Getty Images

Klopp built his rigid defensive line to accommodate Weidenfeller's strengths, and this proved a success in his seven-year reign at the Westfalenstadion.

But it is perhaps no surprise that his successor Thomas Tuchel promptly replaced him, signing Roman Burki from the recently relegated Freiburg in June.

Much like Weidenfeller, Mignolet is a master in one key area of his game; in the Belgian's case, this is his shot-stopping ability.

Mignolet is capable of pulling off match-winning saves, aided by strong reflexes and a top-level agility that spurred Sunderland's successful battle against relegation in 2012/13, and prompted Liverpool to shell out £million to secure his services in 2013.

This has helped Mignolet to keep 14 clean sheets since the beginning of 2015, with no other Premier League goalkeeper registering more during that time:

Klopp has clearly recognised that ability and is looking to nurture the rest of his game to that level, as he told reporters, including the Independent's Mark Critchley, before Liverpool's 6-1 win over Southampton in the League Cup at the beginning of October:

We are not looking for another goalkeeper. We have enough high quality goalkeepers, I’ve had a lot of goalkeepers over last few years and Simon Mignolet is one of the smartest I have ever had.

He is completely open and he’s young enough to develop, to improve.

He’s not had the easiest situation before I came here, but since I have been here there has been nothing to criticise, absolutely nothing. He’s a good football player.

Everyone is watching for a second Manuel Neuer or something, but he is in a really good way. We just have to learn as a team to give the ball to the keeper in the right situation.

Klopp is right to avoid comparisons with Neuer, as Mignolet's attempts to charge off his line to claim loose balls against the Baggies represented more of a desperate surge than an intuitive reading of the game. But is he right to suggest that the rest of the Liverpool side should be looking to tiptoe around his flaws? 

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on August 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Weaknesses

Unfortunately, as Liverpool's most recent stalemate proved, Mignolet is a goalkeeper burdened with a number of weaknesses: He is a poor judge of crosses, has little authority and a possesses dismal range of passing.

Crucially, these manifest themselves in an error-strewn game that provides the Liverpool defence with little confidence; far from the beacon of calm that the Reds require—particularly with a pair of limited centre-backs such as Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren in their midst—Mignolet contributes a worrying unease.

Former Sunderland, Aberdeen and Barnsley goalkeeper David Preece, who is currently serving as Lincoln City's goalkeeper coach and writing for uMAXit Football, analysed Mignolet's performance against the Baggies:

In regards to dealing with crosses, there’s a golden rule (perhaps that should be “Goalden rule”) that in no circumstances do you stand behind your line and Mignolet stepped behind it twice. when dealing with crosses, a starting position just six inches back from where you should be can make the difference between you deciding to come for a cross and dealing with it easily, or you deciding not to stay at home for a ball you should be taking. It’s a clear sign of no confidence.

A keeper who feels nervous when asked questions about his ability in dealing with crosses retreats to the apparent safety of his line, meaning he won’t have to deal with anything other than balls directed on top of him. It’s cop out but mostly done subconsciously. Depending on whether it’s an out-swinging or in-swinging delivery, your position may be altered, but a keeper starting two yards off his lines looking keen to come for the ball gives out a positive signal.

Preece accurately dissected the deficiencies in the Liverpool goalkeeper's approach on Sunday evening: Rather than dominating his penalty area and exerting his physicality over the likes of Dawson and Olsson, Mignolet shrank back between his posts and allowed the game to play out ahead of him.

This gave West Brom the advantage they required, and earned Pulis' side a vital point.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet punches away a last minute shot as he gets caught up with Gabriel Paulista, Calum Chambers of Arsenal along with James Milner and Dejan Lovren of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier Leagu
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Mignolet was credited with an error in that clash by WhoScored, detailing his flaws for Sky Sports, and this leaves the Belgian as having made more errors leading directly to goals than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League since his move to Liverpool in 2013.

His failure to deal with crosses was scrutinised further, with WhoScored concluding that "Mignolet is the only 'keeper who has opted to punch the ball clear more times than he has successfully caught it from a cross (79), since the start of the 2013/14 season."

This is a damning statistic, and one that will see Liverpool continue to lose out in encounters such as this—no doubt hampering their progress under Klopp.

Sunday's draw with West Brom served as further evidence that Mignolet is one of the key weaknesses in the squad Klopp inherited from Brendan Rodgers. And while the former Dortmund manager is wise to back the Belgian in the short term, to reward Mignolet with a new Liverpool contract would be an oversight.

Cologne's goalkeeper Timo Horn reacts after the German First division Bundesliga football match Schalke 04 vs 1 FC Koeln, in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, on December 13, 2014.  AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ

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PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

This is particularly pertinent with the plethora of talented goalkeepers, including Cologne's Timo Horn, as rumoured by German publication Bild (h/t the Daily Express), that have been linked with a move to Merseyside following Klopp's arrival—there are attainable upgrades on Mignolet, perhaps some as soon as January.

To make the next step and continue to stabilise Liverpool's defence, Klopp should be on the lookout for a replacement for Mignolet.

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