Football has changed quite considerably for goalkeepers. A top class goalkeeper can no longer be solely judged on his ability to save shots and command his box, now he must also be able to help maintain possession, start attacks and keep the tempo of his side’s game at a healthy rate.
In years gone by nobody would be mentioning Simon Mignolet’s ball distribution having witnessed some of the spectacular saves he’s made, however times have most certainly changed; those who do question Mignolet’s use of the ball are right to do so. In the limited number of matches that we’ve seen of Mignolet in a Liverpool shirt, it seems to be the only glaring weakness in his game. I was slightly sceptical when Mignolet was brought in to replace Pepe Reina but I’m now convinced that in terms of saving shots, Mignolet will prove to be a very good signing. The one worry is his distribution which, if truth be told, is pretty poor. It’d be unfair to judge him in comparison to Pepe Reina in that regard as Reina is probably the best goalkeeper I’ve ever seen in terms of keeping possession, starting attacks and even creating chances. However, even when judged against ‘lesser’ keepers than Reina, Mignolet still looks somewhat lacking in terms of using his feet, plus comparisons will obviously be drawn as when any team replaces a player, fans will want him to be considerably better than the man they’ve let go.
Both Mignolet and his manager, Brendan Rodgers, will know that there’s work to be done concerning this part of the Belgian’s game and I’d like to think they’ve already started working on it. Our plan in terms of what’s expected from our goalkeepers in terms of distribution is clear to see. Mignolet will be encouraged to look for the quick throw/roll – which in fairness to him, he looks comfortable doing. However if that isn’t on, he looks to have been instructed to try to get the ball to our full backs, and it’s in this instance as he attempts a chipped pass to these men that he often gets it wrong and either makes it difficult for them to control or puts the ball into touch; completely killing any momentum and at times irritating the crowd.
So in the meantime while Mignolet works on improving his distribution, I think Liverpool need to change their gameplan slightly. What I’m about to suggest may sound outstandingly obvious – because it is. I suggest we stop passing the ball back to him so many times as some of our defenders, Martin Skrtel in particular, seem content to simply knock a ball back to him. In fact, Skrtel is averaging one back pass every nine minutes this season, which means he alone is hitting eight to nine back passes a game. Even with a high class user of the ball like Pepe Reina in goal, that would be considered a high amount but with a man who clearly has issues on terms of distribution on goal, it’s far too high a number. (Stats courtesy of @DanKennett)
The team shouldn’t avoid giving Mignolet the ball all of the time. If he’s the only or best option for the player with the ball to give it to then he should be given the responsibility to take possession. However, Liverpool often used a pass to Reina as almost an attacking or positive move, and even if other players were open, he’d still be given the ball. This shouldn’t be the case with Mignolet, as it’s clear to see that he isn’t hugely comfortable with the ball at his feet.
The midfield players need to help out here too. If Liverpool’s defenders have the ball and are being pressed – like what happened against Southampton – then the midfielders need to work harder to get into space to accept the ball, something both Steven Gerrard and more noticeably Lucas Leiva seem to be doing less than in previous years.
By replacing Reina with Mignolet, Liverpool may have inherited a better shot stopper but in the process they also acquired a goalkeeper who isn’t as good with his feet. Rodgers must have known this when he signed Mignolet, and if he didn’t, he certainly will know that now. Therefore he must start using his new keeper in a different way than he did with his old one and rely on his defenders and midfielders to take the ball, where in times gone by it would have gone back to Pepe Reina.
It’s easy to say Mignolet needs to adapt to Liverpool and he certainly needs to work on his distribution, however Liverpool’s players and manager must adapt to having Mignolet in goal and stop expecting him to be Reina-esque with the ball because quite frankly he never will be that good, and it’s unfair to expect him to be.
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