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Mignolet’s First Season: The Gift & The Curse Of Reina’s Shadow

Imagine being a goalkeeper and you have just been bought by one of the most decorated clubs in Football. When making your debut, a dream start would obviously be winning the game, but from an individual standpoint, picture saving a late penalty to cement the victory, well on his Liverpool debut, that is exactly what Simon Mignolet did. His joy must have been unexplainable. Did this save though raise the bar too high for the rest of his first season on Merseyside? How exactly has replacing long time Liverpool number one PepeReina distinguished Mignolet’s performances? Let’s take a look.

The Gift

Mignolet was signed for 9 million pounds from Sunderland, a transfer which bemused some Liverpool fans as they adoredlong term first choice, Pepe Reina. Reds’ manager Brendan Rodgers had first indicated that Mignolet was bought to provide stiff competition to the Spanish International. As subsequent weeks rolled on though, Reina was sent on loan to Italian outfit Napoli. This move reunited him with former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez and his old goalkeeping coach and friend, Xavi Valero.

Reina had done his Liverpool future harm by openly flirting with a move back to Barcelona; a situation that prompted him to write a letter to the fans once the move failed to materialise.Reina wanted to clarify to fans, the fact he would only leave Liverpool to return to the Catalan giants, otherwise he was more than happy to stay on Merseyside.

Now, to add to the extreme pressure that Mignolet faced on starting his Liverpool career, he knew any mistake he made would be highly scrutinized, especially by those who did not want Reina to be replaced regardless of his off field antics.

On debut, Mignolet not only saved a Jonathan Walters penalty, he reacted superbly to also thwart the rebound, triggering a raucous reception from the Anfield crowd. Mignolet continued to look good with clean sheets in the following games against Aston Villa (Away) especially, and Manchester United (Home), respectively. His great shot stopping ability which we already knew, from his time at Sunderland were clearly evident.

Roll on the Merseyside Derby in November, and we witnessed arguably Mignolet’s best performance in a Liverpool shirt so far. Despite conceding three goals in the most entertaining derby for many a year, Mignolet produced a plethora of saves to deny Romelu Lukaku and Everton from grabbing three welcome points. Playing against city rivals, the timing could not have been more perfect.

Come March, and in successive away wins against Southampton and Manchester United respectively, Mignolet made two great stops; both with Liverpool leading the games 1-0, to help pave the road to victory. In the Southampton game it was a superb one handed stop to deny Jay Rodriguez. At the time the home side were dominating the game and who knows what could have happened had that effort gone in. On the stroke of half time at Old Trafford, he did well to prevent Wayne Rooney from levelling with an effort from the edge of the box. Though United had been outplayed, goals change games, and this could have bolstered a sub standard team to play better.

At home to Manchester City in April, in what at the time was Liverpool’s most important game of the season (on the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster), Mignolet produced a sublime save to halt Fernandinho from pulling a goal back when Liverpool were two goals ahead in the first half. City controlled the second half and as Liverpool eventually won the game 3-2, the importance of this particular save is self-explanatory.

Every save Mignolet made helped bit by bit try to persuade fans that he was ready to replace Reina and be Liverpool’s first choice keeper for years to come, as at 26 he is still relatively young.

The Curse

Though Mignolet’s shot stopping heroics were clearly evident throughout the season, he actually only kept ten clean sheets in the League in his first campaign. I say only as he had three shut outs in his first three games, so he followed this up with 7 in 35 appearances. When you analyse that Liverpool came just a couple of points shy of their first Championship since 1990, the fact they conceded 50 League goals was far too excessive. Despite Reina making some bad mistakes in his first two seasons in England, in the Spaniard’s first season in 2005/06, he actually broke the record for consecutive clean sheets by a Liverpool keeper in the League with six. He went on to have 20 clean sheets and scooped the prestigious Golden Gloves award.

To pinpoint certain moments in which question marks can be placed against Mignolet, we only have to travel back to St James’ Park in October. In this 2-2 draw, Mignolet was at fault as a 35 yard hail Mary effort from Yohan Cabaye which  somehow found its way inexplicably past a slow moving Mignolet into the back of the net.

Back to back away games with title challengers Manchester City and Chelsea over the Christmas period also found Mignolet wanting. In the first game at 1-1, Alvaro Negredo totally fooled Mignolet by feigning to blast a shot but instead deftly chipping the ball that the Belgian only managed to parry leading to the inevitable deciding goal. With the score at one all again two days later at Stamford Bridge, Mignolet could only palm a tame close range Samuel Eto’o effort into the net; again a goal which proved to be the game clincher.

Luckily for Liverpool, Mignolet’s biggest errors came in games that they somehow did not lose. In January’s two all draw with Aston Villa at Anfield, Mignolet made a terrible hash, of a Gabriel Agbonlahor cross, allowing Christian Benteke to slot into the unguarded net putting Villa 2-0 up. Easter Day’s 3-2 away victory at Norwich saw Mignolet fumble a cross that was tucked in by Gary Hooper, putting Norwich back into the game. These errors were overcome, but at the highest level with Liverpool back in Europe’s elite competition, these mistakes have to be eradicated for Liverpool to not be embarrassed next season.

Now to pin the criticism all on Belgium’s number two would be extremely harsh. As superb and exhilarating as their attacking play became, Liverpool’s defending at times this season was imprudent and to be honest, that is being polite. Of course one also appreciates this was a defensive unit with four new additions who all made at least 15 League appearances; Mignolet himself, Mamadou Sakho from PSG, Aly Cissokho on loan from Valencia and Kolo Toure on a free transfer. This constant rotation of players (for whatever reason) could not have helped the cohesiveness of the back five.

Now if we look at Reina, he helped Napoli to 3rd in the Serie A table, and helped them to win the Italian Cup. Reina played in 30 League games for Napoli in 2013/14 and made 41 appearances in all competitions. Reina also had 11 clean sheets, which was one more than Mignolet, and he did it in eight less matches. Two of Reina’s clean sheets in the League came against Roma and Juventus at home, the two teams who finished above Napoli in Serie A. He was joint eighth with Inter’s Samir Handanovic in the ‘Saves by goalkeeper table’ with 107 stops in his 30 League outings (Source: legaseriea.it). No keeper who had to make more saves than Reina is from a team that finished higher in the table, indicating his shot stopping ability have not deserted him.

The low point of his season was conceding eight League goals in four matches in December; the irony is though, Napoli did not lose any of these matches. The undoubted highlight of Reina’s season came in a 2-1 win over AC Milan at the San Siro when he became the first keeper to save a Mario Balotelli penalty kick which secured the victory.

Goalkeeping is much more than merely shot stopping. Commanding the area, communication and distribution are other important attributes. I myself would feel much safer with Reina in goal when there was a ball coming into the box. In comparison to Mignolet, Reina’s superior ability to throw the ball out to start attacks coupled with his very good kicking surely would aid Liverpool’s aggressive counter attacking style immensely.

So my big conclusion is, yes Reina betrayed Liverpool in openly saying he would like to return to Barcelona, but so did Luis Suarez when he partitioned for a move to Arsenal which would have been far more detrimental to Liverpool’s cause. Barcelona signed promising German keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen from Borussia Moenchengladbach, so a move for Reina is basically out of the question. It is also unclear whether Napoli are definitely going to try and make a permanent move for Reina. So as Reina still has two seasons to run on his contract, I feel inspite of everything, Liverpool should bring him back and let him and Mignolet battle it out for the number one jersey. It may not seem feasible at first, but healthy competition will only make Liverpool stronger. Real Madrid have won the Champions League and Spanish Cup with Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas as their two keepers and I believe Brendan Rodgers can make it work, if Reina is willing to come back. If it does not work, Liverpool can still cash in a few million pounds as he will still have a year on his contract. Mignolet may have raised expectations even higher than they were with his opening day penalty save, however I am not sure he did enough to fully convince all the fans over the whole season that he should easily be number one.

Daniel Dwamena

@DubulDee

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