Simon Mignolet found himself taking the plaudits for the second week running as Liverpool ground out a 1-0 win over West Brom, in which Mignolet made a tremendous save with ten minutes to go to keep Liverpool in front. This comes directly off the back of a match-winning performance last weekend, in which Mignolet denied Saido Berahino and Charlie Adam from close range to seal the points for his team. So the question is, do these performances change Mignolet’s standing at the club?
There have been times this season where Mignolet’s Liverpool has looked finished. The signing of Loris Karius looked to have doomed his season before it started. Karius picked up a serious injury in pre-season which gave Mignolet a second chance, but patchy early-season form cost him dearly as Karius slotted straight into the side upon his return from injury.
But it seems that Mignolet’s Liverpool career is like a cat with nine lives, as high-profile errors against Bournemouth and West Ham cost Karius his place in the side and Mignolet was reinstated. Since then, Mignolet’s form has drastically improved, with the standout performances of the last two games the culmination of an excellent few months of form.
But it’s not enough. And the fact that Mignolet’s last two performances are surprising is indicative of one of Liverpool’s biggest problems. Players like Simon Mignolet, or the similarly impressive Lucas Leiva are allowed to continue starting games for the club because of individual standout performances. Martin Skrtel is another example, as is to an extent Dejan Lovren. These are not players who will win you titles, and they are not players who are good enough to play in the Champions League. And Mignolet is the same.
Mignolet is a good goalkeeper. He has his strengths and he has his weaknesses. To his credit, recently he has begun to show far more of the former and begin to work on the latter. Since Christmas, Mignolet’s ability in dealing with crosses has vastly improved, an area of his game that was extremely important in this win against West Brom. Moreover, his shot-stopping has been top notch. But have the errors that have always held him back been eradicated from his game, or is another one waiting around the corner, ready to trip Liverpool up yet again?
This is one of the two key issues with Mignolet: trust. Was there ever a moment when Mignolet came rushing out to deny Phillips that you trusted him to save it? With every cross that Mignolet managed to get a solid fist to, there was always that wincing moment where you expected him to flap at it and cost a goal. Mignolet is 29 years old and this is his 4th season for the club. He has spent three and a half of those years eroding any trust that Liverpool supporters will have had in him, and it’s genuinely hard to believe that he won’t lose that trust again if he’s trusted as our first choice keeper again next season. Whilst goalkeepers can improve with age in a way that outfield players cannot, and Mignolet could easily have a decade at the top of his game ahead of him, nevertheless it does appear that it’s a bit late in the day for him to suddenly be improving to the point where he’s a world class keeper.
The other issue is that Mignolet simply isn’t a top keeper. Even on his best days, over the course of the season, Mignolet simply hasn’t been on a level where he’s close to the bracket of De Gea, Courtois, Lloris, Cech or even the likes of Tom Heaton or Jordan Pickford. The blunt, painful truth is that these are goalkeepers who do what Mignolet has done in the last two games, week in, week out. The majority of the other top four and title contenders would trust their goalkeeper in the situations that Mignolet has found himself in, but as Liverpool fans, we react with shock and pleasure, in the hope that maybe Mignolet has turned a corner.
If he has, then that’s fantastic. But if he hasn’t? Mignolet still shows bizarre lapses in judgement: today he casually picked up the ball after Dejan Lovren kneed it back to him. Whilst it appeared that Lovren had simply lost control of the ball, my gut reaction was that Lovren had been trying to pass the ball back to his keeper. The point is, whether it was a pass-back or not, Mignolet should have been taking no chances. It’s only been a few months since his insane error to cost a goal at home to Chelsea, and although his penalty save rectified things that day, Liverpool simply cannot rely on Mignolet not to make errors.
Moreover, Loris Karius was one of the most talented and exciting young goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, yet he hasn’t had an opportunity to develop in Klopp’s side after making a couple of high-profile errors. But how many of those type of errors has Mignolet made in his time at Liverpool? At this stage in their careers, is Mignolet significantly further along than Karius is? Does Mignolet have more potential than Karius? Why should we be prioritising the development of a 29-year-old over the development of a 23-year-old?
Liverpool have conceded 50 goals a season with Mignolet at the helm and this season have conceded 28 goals in 22 games with him in goal. Whilst the defence ahead of him deserves to take a significant chunk of criticism for those stats, Mignolet simply hasn’t helped himself. Two exceptional performances, following a string of decent performances, cannot be enough to change that.
If Liverpool want to win the Premier League title in the next few years, if they want to consistently be making the Champions League and compete in that Champions League then they need a top class goalkeeper. And whilst it’s fair to say that they currently don’t have one at their disposal, Karius is significantly more likely to become one than Mignolet. As such, Liverpool need to either gamble and back Karius, or sign a world class keeper in the summer.
Either way, two excellent performances change very little, even if Mignolet can turn in five more man of the match performances. He’s had his chance, he’s had too many chances, and now it’s time to give someone else a chance.