Here is a lowdown on the competition between Simon Mignolet and Pepe Reina at Liverpool FC; and how Victor Valdes holds the key to the identity of Liverpool’s No 1 goalkeeper
History often repeats itself; and the events of the summer transfer window have seen Liverpool’s destiny between the sticks come full circle. Call him ruthless if you may, but the ball had been set rolling by Rafa Benitez 8 summers ago when he called Pepe Reina “the best goalkeeper in Spain” on signing him from Villareal for £8m. Ironically, this came off the back of Jerzy Dudek’s heroics in Istanbul at one of the most memorable Champions League finals in recent times. The Pole’s double save off Andriy Shevchenko may have gotten him the accolade of the greatest Champions League moment ever (yes, above Solksjaer too) but it was not enough to keep him in the starting lineup at Anfield by the end of the 2005-06 season.
Pepe Reina’s early flourish
Pepe Reina is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, period. Benitez may have been ruthless with Dudek, but the Spaniard rewarded his faith with the Premier League Golden Glove award in each of his first three seasons at Liverpool. When at his best, his distribution from goal is top notch (how else would Andrea Dossena score against Manchester United). There are not many goalkeepers in the world who are better with the ball at their feet. Eight saves in three penalty shootouts while at Liverpool is no mean feat; but most importantly, he has been an assured presence in Liverpool’s last line of defence.
However, initial questions about his performance began during Kenny Dalglish’s full season at Anfield. The first noticeable signs of a ‘decline’ were visible when Grant Holt beat him to a cross to equalize in a home draw against Norwich City. While Reina was not quite guilty of howlers of the Massimo Taibi variety, Kopites watched as he began to look more shaky than usual. Unlike in previous seasons, he would be beaten to goals that he would normally save; and Ramires’ opener in the 2012 FA Cup Final made it look like his famous reflexes have irreparably slowed down. His save percentage had well and truly dropped from 90% of shots faced in 2005-06 to 69% in Kenny Dalglish’s final season as manager.
In the meantime, a moment of madness at Tyneside saw him get sent off while Liverpool nearly lost three goalkeepers in the space of a week. Liverpool supporters have gotten behind their goalies over the years; and third and then second-choice keeper Brad Jones successfully filled in for the FA Cup semi-final. However, his performance at Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup defeat this past season was enough evidence that he may not be a reliable goalkeeping deputy. Doni has since quietly left the club; and while Pepe Reina’s form improved significantly over the second half of the season, one only needs to look at Sergio Aguero’s wonder goal against the Reds as evidence that costly mistakes may not have been completely eradicated.
The goalkeeper’s position is a peculiar one. Unlike other positions on the field where chopping and changing takes place more frequently, there is a clear hierarchy as to who forms the last line of defence. Moreover, first-choice goalkeepers are at least risk to injury. This leaves other goalkeepers as well as managers with a dilemma as to the choice and management of the understudy in goal. All goalkeepers (irrespective of ability) prefer regular game time. Keeping reserve goalkeepers fit, raring to go and happy is a tricky task, as second and third choice goalkeepers lack the necessary match fitness. It is imperative for every team to have an able deputy in case of injury – but the sight of a Shay Given on the bench at, not one, but two Premier League clubs in recent times, is not a very pleasing one. Such situation could end up being the case at Liverpool but, from a long term perspective, one man holds the key to the manner in which this situation pans out – Victor Valdes.
Victor Valdes – the joker in the pack
Victor Valdes’ decision to announce, earlier this year, that he would not sign an extension to his current contract that ends in June 2014 means that Barcelona will now be looking for a new goalkeeper. There is no confirmation as to whether there is a transfer brewing in that area this summer; and Valdes subsequently stated that he intends to see out his current deal until the end. Names like Marc Andre ter Stegen and David de Gea have been thrown around; but Miguel Reina’s proclamation earlier this year that his son would be perfect for Barca stirred the pot.
After all, Barca’s ethos of playing the ball out from the back is not new to the Spaniard. In fact, he excels at it, and is arguably better in the air than Valdes. Also, while the departure of a Kop favourite is never celebrated, Liverpool supporters do not grudge those who go back to their home clubs (case in point, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez). Pepe Reina has since stated that he is happy at Liverpool and wishes to stay at the club. Meanwhile, manager Brendan Rodgers began to talk about the need to increase competition for places in the club, and supposedly took Reina out to lunch to inform him that he was not going to be exempt.
Step forward, Simon Mignolet
Comparisons and debates aside, Simon Mignolet was the difference between Sunderland and relegation. Like Reina, the ex-Sunderland man is an excellent shot stopper. His record of 1.4 goals conceded per game in the 2012-13 season is extremely good, considering he was part of a team that finished 17th in 2012-13. His percentage of shots saved for the season (i.e. 73%) was higher than that of Reina. Standing at 6ft 4in with an affinity to punching crosses, Mignolet is dominant in the air and commanded his area fairly well amidst a woeful Sunderland defence. The Belgian is well worth the £9m spent on him.
The presence of two top goalkeepers at Anfield begs the question – who should be number one. While the intention to promote competition for places in the team is commendable, Brendan Rodgers (like other managers) will have to make a decision as to who should be first choice, at some point of time. Constant rotation may keep both goalkeepers on their toes; but it could also create uncertainty not just for the goalkeeper but also among the back four. While all the focus of attention has been on who would be number one this coming season, there is one question that has not yet been given much thought – what happens when Victor Valdes’ contract runs out?
If Valdes sticks to his presence stance and Barcelona express genuine interest, there is a fair chance that Pepe Reina will be plying his trade in Catalunya one season from now. Therefore, the ideal course of action at this point in time would be to persist with Pepe Reina as number one for the coming season. If he continues to perform the way he did in the first part of 2013, there will certainly be a few clean sheets available to accumulate. Also, in the event of a potential sale to the Catalan giants, Pepe Reina’s market value will not be diminished if he was a first choice goalie at Anfield.
If his statistics were taken as evidence, Mignolet’s distribution is a relative weakness in his game. However, a pass completion rate of 41% this past season may be a bi-product of the style of play at Wearside. Just as Andre Villas Boas eased Hugo Lloris into the Spurs’ starting eleven, Brendan Rodgers could follow suit by easing the Belgian into the squad by playing him at cup games. If Liverpool manage a fairly long cup run this season, it would provide Mignolet with a chance to improve his distribution, as well as experience the pressure of cup games at Liverpool. The Belgian’s only major worry at this point of his career is a loss of his starting place in his national squad to Thibaut Courtois. Given that even Mark Schwarzer and David James are still playing the game, Mignolet will have ample time to establish his place as first-choice goalie for club and country. Until then, Pepe Reina deserves a fair chance to provide evidence of his ability.