The 'Keeper Conundrum!
Listen to this article via @AIAudible !
Heading into the summer transfer window, it has been well documented that as a club, we have some areas in which we are particularly sparse in terms of playing staff – left-back and centre forward spring immediately to my mind. But one area in which we definitely aren’t short is in between the sticks, but that still doesn’t stop the newspapers linking us to more or less every half decent goalkeeper in Europe.
It’s not just the senior ranks in which we have a number of goalkeepers – Simon Mignolet, Loris Karius, Adam Bogdan, Ryan Fulton and Danny Ward – but the Academy is awash with ‘keeping talent too, with Caoimhin Kelleher, Shamal George, Andrew Firth, Kamil Grabara, Ben Williams and Daniel Atherton on our books. Despite this we continue to be linked with top class ‘keepers: Manchester City’s Joe Hart, Gianluigi Donnarumma of AC Milan, the relegated-yet-impressive Jordan Pickford, Premier League title-winner Kasper Schmeichel and veteran Iker Casillas.
So the question is: What the hell do we do?!
Mignolet is a ‘keeper who has always had his critics, especially since his move to Anfield in 2013 to replace arguably one of the best goalies ever to play for the Reds in Pepe Reina. His contract extension eighteen months ago surprised some considering his up and down performances, but since he regained his place in the Liverpool team towards the end of 2016, he has probably been in the best form of his Liverpool career, keeping nine clean sheets in twenty-eight games.
Karius arrived on Merseyside twelve months ago after a fantastic breakthrough season for Mainz, which ended with him named the second-best goalkeeper in the division after Manuel Neuer. The German started the second in between the sticks for the Reds, and did okay, keeping three clean sheets in ten starts. Karius is only twenty-three, and definitely has his best years ahead of him, and will undoubtedly play some part for Liverpool next season.
The big dilemma in terms of senior ‘keepers is Danny Ward; the Welshman, who is exactly the same age as Karius, has had a sublime season on loan at David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town which led to their promotion in the Play-Off Final at Wembley on Monday. Ward has unquestionable talent, but probably isn’t at a stage where he could unseat Mignolet as Number 1 or even Karius as Number 2. After the season he’s had with the Terriers, and given Jurgen Klopp’s close relationship with Wagner, a transfer may take place in the summer to take Ward back to Yorkshire on another season-long loan deal or perhaps a permanent transfer with a buy-back clause. This gives Ward game-time to prove himself in the Premier League and prove that he deserves to be playing for Liverpool, meanwhile also giving Mignolet and Karius the opportunity to show Klopp that they deserve to be his squad ‘keepers.
Bogdan’s injury last year meant he returned to Liverpool before Christmas, and the Hungarian will probably be sold once he has returned to full fitness as he will not get any time playing in the First Team, or the U23s. The other ‘keeper in the First Team fold is Ryan Fulton, who has been with the Reds since U10s. The man from Burnley has had a disappointing season out on loan at Chesterfield which ended in their relegation to League Two after finishing bottom of the third tier. Still only twenty-one, the Scottish youth international still has a lot of time to grow, and will probably be sent back out on loan next season, but with the talent in the Academy, his time at Liverpool may be running out.
Briefly looking at the kids, we have some fantastic goalkeeping youngsters coming through the system. It’s been a frustrating season for nineteen-year-old Shamal George, having suffered a number of injuries and struggling to hold his place in the U23s despite featuring in pre-season for the First Team (albeit as a striker against Huddersfield). Pole Kamil Grabara and Ireland’s Caoimhin Kelleher were both name-checked by Klopp in an interview the First Team manager conducted a couple of months ago when justifying why Liverpool weren’t interested in signing Joe Hart, the German said “The young ones have made really big steps with Kamil and Caoimhin”.
George, Grabara and Kelleher are the most promising ‘keepers in the current youth set-up, with the three playing a combined total of 42 matches for the U23s and U18s, but also involved are Merseyside duo Ben Williams and Dan Atherton making their debuts for the U18s this season, going on to make four and five appearances respectively. The only goalkeeper in the youth system not to feature this season was twenty-year-old Andrew Firth, who spent most of his season on the bench for the U23s. Firth signed a new contract with the Reds on Thursday after ten years with the club, so this would suggest that the exit door doesn’t beckon for the Yorkshireman, who may be sent out on loan to gain match experience rather than sitting on the bench for another season.
Looking at this then it would seem like our goalkeeping situation is reasonably strong, yet still we continue to be linked with the likes of Hart, Donnarumma, Pickford and Casillas. To me, there seems to be no point in signing a player like Hart or Schmeichel who would expect to move straight into the starting eleven when this isn’t going to happen in place of Mignolet. A youngster like Donnarumma would probably also expect to be Number 1 considering his current role at AC Milan, while Pickford could learn a lot from playing second fiddle to Mignolet, but that spot is already taken by Karius, so without selling the German I see no way in which Pickford could make the same trip from the North East to North West as Liverpool’s current Number 22. The links to World Cup, Champions League, La Liga winner Casillas came from nowhere really, with reports of a pre-contract agreement being signed between the Spaniard and the 5-time European champions. Casillas’ role with Liverpool would be dramatically different to his role at Porto and Real Madrid before that, in that he probably wouldn’t be playing any games for the Reds. Casillas’ role would probably be similar to the role of Alex Manninger this season; imputing his vast experience onto Mignolet and Karius, working with goalkeeping coaches John Achterberg, Mark Morris and Neil Edwards.
So if I was Jurgen Klopp thinking about goalkeepers this summer, I certainly would not be panicking and spending money on anyone! I would sell both Bogdan and Fulton, send Ward back to Huddersfield either on a loan deal or permanent with a buy-back clause, send Andy Firth out on loan to a League Two side, leaving Grabara, George and Kelleher to fight for the U23s place and Williams and Atherton the U18s. Mignolet and Karius certainly have the First Team covered. The only acquisition which could be seen as beneficial to the squad considering Manninger’s retirement would be Casillas if he could settle for that time of background role.