A few months into the season, it appeared certain that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp would have to target another goalkeeper this summer, having already attempted to fix the longstanding issue that has plagued Liverpool since Pepe Reina’s departure four years ago.
Klopp’s solution came in the form of 23 year old goalkeeper Loris Karius, who was signed from German club Mainz for less than £5m.
Karius was undoubtedly signed to replace Liverpool’s then-first-choice goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet. However, a hand injury delayed Karius’ competitive debut for the club and disrupted the young German’s pre-season. Consequently, Mignolet remained in goal for Klopp in the opening weeks of the season, but once Karius was fit the latter was swiftly inserted into the first-team.
At that point it appeared Mignolet’s days at Liverpool were numbered. Yet Mignolet remains the club’s number one in goal nearly a year on from Liverpool’s signing of Karius, and incredibly the 29 year old could remain between the sticks for the Reds next season.
Despite being wholly unconvincing in his first three years at Anfield, following a £9m move from Sunderland in the summer of 2013, Mignolet has been much improved this season. Even prior to being displaced by Karius Mignolet was impressive and increasingly exuded reassurance. Belgium’s number two (behind Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois) remained susceptible to errors though, which continued once he was reinstated, such as in the 2-0 defeat to Hull City.
However, overall Mignolet has been far more consistent in this campaign, and crucially has improved in areas where he was previously vulnerable, causing uncertainty and fear to spread throughout the defence.
At set-pieces, Mignolet is now collecting crosses with far greater regularity, and his decision-making has improved, choosing accurately for when to punch or hold onto the ball.
Whilst the rest of the team remains incoherent in marking and clearing at set-pieces, they should feel more confident in the goalkeeper behind them.
Even in general play Mignolet appears far less likely to cause chaos in choosing when to leave or stay in his six or eighteen-yard box, which again points to the progress in his decision-making and confidence.
Mignolet has always been a good shot-stopper, which should be the minimum expected of every good goalkeeper – yet there are a number who struggle to achieve this (sorry Claudio Bravo).
However, in the matches where Liverpool have needed a big save from their goalkeeper to keep them in the game, or to ensure a victory and three points, Mignolet has produced under pressure more often than not.
In particular, the last couple of months has seen Mignolet make some hugely important saves, such as in the away victories against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. Both were tight, narrow wins, which could have easily lead to more dropped points for Liverpool – which has consistently undermined their season and their earlier chances of a possible title challenge.
Against Stoke and West Brom, that same weakness was preparing to strike down Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League football – until Mignolet intervened.
Aside from those, Mignolet has dealt with almost everything else that has come his way, regulation or otherwise, which continues to add to his growing reputation as a keeper that Liverpool can perhaps rely upon in the years to come.
Since the loss of Reina and the mixed fortunes of Mignolet as his successor, every year Liverpool fans would have been forgiven for including a goalkeeper in their transfer targets for the club.
Aside from Karius’ arrival, Liverpool were also linked last summer with the likes of Joe Hart, now currently on loan from Manchester City at Italian side Torino, and Timo Horn of FC Koln in Germany. These names remained transfer rumours in the first half of the season because of the upheaval around Mignolet and Karius, as neither grasped the opportunity to become Liverpool’s main goalkeeper.
Hart in particular was heavily rumoured to assume the club’s no.1 jersey at Mignolet and Karius’ expense this summer, with many figures, such as Jamie Carragher, championing Hart’s case. Yet Hart has struggled in Italy, and subsequent links with Manchester United and Chelsea, should they lose David De Gea and Courtois respectively, appear fortuitous for the 30 year old.
Regardless, Klopp ruled out a move for Hart, and for signing any new goalkeepers this summer, and the German’s faith is justified for next season at least.
Mignolet, for the first time in four years, has enjoyed a positive season individually for Liverpool, but only one season, which even then still experienced ups and downs.
He responded to the competition of Karius, but needs to continue his improvement and prove that his newly-discovered good form will not merely be a false dawn before a return to mediocrity.
Many will have their doubts with Mignolet – understandably so given his first three seasons at the club – but he deserves another season to showcase whether he can finally become Liverpool’s long-term successor to Reina.
Mignolet is entering the typical prime years for a goalkeeper, so perhaps Brendan Rodgers’ investment is finally being realized. If not, then Mignolet can expect to be relegated to the bench once again for what would then definitely be his final year at Anfield.
Karius may have struggled this season but has shown flashes of his potential in games, such as against Southampton in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final defeat, where he stood tall against a barrage from Claude Puel’s side.
With a year’s experience under his belt, Karius will be desperate to reclaim the place he was earmarked for and will provide a sterner test to Mignolet next season, hence the latter’s need to continue improving to remain the last line of defence for the Reds.
Moreover, Danny Ward’s return from an impressive loan spell at Championship play-off hopefuls Huddersfield Town will only add to the competition for both Mignolet and Karius – competition which Klopp hopes will carry one of the trio to a level befitting a first choice goalkeeper at Liverpool.
If Klopp’s hopes are not realized, then the Liverpool manager will have to add a goalkeeper to his summer shopping list this time next year. For next season however Liverpool have the depth necessary in three good goalkeepers, who all have the potential to become great goalkeepers.
Certainly, buying a goalkeeper is not a priority for this summer – there are other positions in need of urgent attention, such as a defensive midfielder, left-back and a left-winger. Yet that admission is testament to Mignolet’s improvement this season.
As with Karius and Ward, Mignolet is not world-class but a far more improved version of the goalkeeper that struggled in his first three years at Anfield.
Maybe Klopp was right in his words of faith for Mignolet last year, rewarding the Belgian with a long-term contract, even if Klopp did not believe himself, shown by buying Karius. Or perhaps he knew one of the duo would push on through competition, but expected it to be Karius, not Mignolet, having selected Karius so soon after recovering from injury, despite Mignolet’s encouraging displays.
Irrespective of the theories, Mignolet has proved this season that he is not ready to give up on his Liverpool dream just yet.