It is fair to say that over the past year or two, Pepe Reina hasn’t quite performed to the sky high standards that he has set himself in a Liverpool shirt. During his first season, after his Summer move from Villareal, Reina proved any doubters wrong with a series of unflappable performances which lead to a club record of an incredible eleven consecutive clean sheets.
The club appeared to be going from strength to strength at the time. As the European Cup holders, they almost added the World Club Championship to their collection, only for an unfortunate defeat against Sao Paulo in the final.
Despite the success of Istanbul, it was clear that Liverpool still needed somewhat of a reshuffle of playing staff. High on the list of priorities was a new goalkeeper. Although Jerzy Dudek performed heroically against Milan, the Pole had shown enough inconsistencies in his game that season for Rafa Benitez to try and snap up a young, up and coming keeper. It was somewhat of a coup for Liverpool to land Reina; a broad, uncompromising shot stopper with a reputation as a penalty saver. (Although he got nowhere near Gary McAllister’s in 2001. That was so long ago now it seems almost impossible that it was the same Pepe Reina!)
The Spaniard has since gone on to break many records at the Club and has become a real fan’s favourite. Always capable of producing stupendous saves, such as the one from Marlon Harewood in the 2006 FA Cup Final, Reina has allowed a number of sloppy mistakes to blight his game over the past couple of seasons.
The situation became particularly apparent after the departure of Benitez. Roy Hodgson’s first League game in charge saw the ten men of Liverpool almost hold on for an important victory over Arsenal, only for Reina to fumble the ball into his own net in the last minute.
A number of mistakes have since followed, including a couple in Brendan Rodgers’ first few games at the helm. While his imposing physical stature still marks him out as a formidable opponent, his weak handling and neglect of his near post has, at times, allowed the opposition to take advantage, even with the most speculative of efforts.
In order for Liverpool to get back to winning ways, a confident, solid goalkeeper is a necessity. Rodgers must work out why Reina seems to have lost some of his mental sharpness or confidence and find a way to instil it back in the brain of his number 25.
There could be a few reasons for Reina’s downturn in form. One possible reason could be the regular re-jigging of the management and coaching staff. During his earlier years at Anfield, Reina’s boss was Rafa Benitez. Things were stable, and so were the jobs of the backroom staff, including those of the goalkeeping coaches. Jose Ochotorena had been at Liverpool for a year before Reina’s arrival, and was was a fellow Spaniard who played for Real Madrid and Valencia and went to the 1990 World Cup as backup to Andoni Zubizaretta. A solid relationship was sure to have been built between the two.
Ochotorena remained at the club until 2007 until he chose to return to Valencia. His replacement, Xavi Valero, another Spaniard, had not made a great impact as a player, turning out just a handful of times as a professional, including spells with Mallorca, Cordoba and Wrexham(!). Nevertheless, Valero seemed to have a positive impact around the club and even Fernando Torres singled him out for praise by stating that Valero provided him with a range of information about opposition goalkeepers, including their likely actions in a one-on-one situation.
Valero left with Benitez in the Summer of 2010, signalling a Spanish and Hispanic exodus from the club. Despite Reina’s excellent command of the English language and the commendable manner in which he has immersed himself in Liverpool life, it can’t be easy to see a host of compatriots depart for pastures new. Especially considering that results on the pitch had not been up to scratch.
When Roy Hodgson was appointed as replacement he brought along his own goalkeeping coach, Mike Kelly. Although a solid professional, it’s highly unlikely that Reina had any idea of who his new coach was, and the fact that Kelly had made his professional debut in 1958 would suggest that his ideas and drills would be somewhat different to those used by the continental, more youthful Ochotorena and Valero. It could be argued that Reina lost mentors to whom he could personally relate.
Kelly’s departure, paved the way for John Achterberg to join the club. The Dutchman, who made over 300 appearances for Tranmere Rovers, at 41 years of age, is early on in his coaching career. Whether he is experienced and shrewd enough to help Reina out of his un-purple patch remains to be seen.
Reina’s situation in international football could also be a factor in his current predicament. He is in the unusual situation of having won a host of major prizes for his country, without having spent much time on the pitch. He is Spain’s Pegguy Arphexad, with nearly as many medals as he has competitive caps. However, this is through no fault of his own. That Iker Casillas has been the Spanish number 1 for so long owes much to the fact that he is the darling of Real Madrid. While there is no doubting his ability, it could be argued that Reina has had spells in the past few years when he has been the best goalkeeper in the world, let alone the best keeper of Spanish descent.
This must be a problem for Reina. Playing for your country is one of the highest accolades that can be bestowed on a professional footballer but he knows that no matter how well he plays, political issues will state that Casillas would have to lose an arm before being removed from the Spanish goal.
This is in stark contrast to his situation at Liverpool. For many years he has been a reliable part of the team’s spine and for the vast majority of the time has been dependable in the extreme, yet has only two domestic cup medals to show for his six full seasons with the club. On one hand he has won the highest honours known to footballers, without doing a great deal, yet on the other has won very little despite being a senior, important member of the team. For the past three or four seasons now Liverpool have hardly been playing for anything too meaningful. Has complacency set in to his mind?
In order for Pepe Reina to return to anything like his best form, I believe that he either needs a transfer, or for the club to start challenging for the highest honours again. He has been at Liverpool during a time when the Champion’s League and Premiership success was a very real possibility, yet has witnessed many of the team’s star players – other parts of that strong spine – disappear, mainly to clubs who have been more successful. Now, and in the past few years, he has found himself under more pressure, due to the lack of goals being scored by his team and the weakening of the squad as a whole.
Whether we will ever see the best of Pepe Reina again remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though is that he is a very popular figure at Anfield and the other players realise what a talisman he is. Let’s just hope that they can help him to return to the very lofty standards that he has set himself during certain periods since his arrival.