Simon Mignolet has every right to be thoroughly fed up. He has been forced to endure endless criticism from the vast majority of the Liverpool fan-base ever since his first season. His great moments are constantly overlooked, while his errors are scrutinised closely. Any run of consistent form he gets going is disregarded as soon as he makes one mistake. The Belgian stopper has not got fed up, however: he has got his head down. A model professional through and through, he has continued to work hard and concentrate on doing the best he can. Even the signing of a keeper who was surely meant as his medium-term successor did not outwardly faze him, and Mignolet has actually produced his best season for Liverpool to date. He has not undergone a ‘transformation’, as his old vocal critics would have you believe – his class, particularly when it comes to shot-stopping, has always been apparent. However, his game has become more well-rounded and consistent: he is finally managing to garner some respect from the fans who, frankly, have mistreated him.
Mignolet’s finest attribute was very much on show in the invaluable victory against Stoke. He is a truly world class shot-stopper, which is of course the primary prerequisite of any goalkeeper, and he pulled off two frankly remarkable saves. The first came with Liverpool 1-0 down: Charlie Adam was denied brilliantly from point-blank range. The second, coming after the Brazilian duo of Coutinho and Firmino had succeeded in turning the game around to 2-1, was even more spectacular. Saido Berahino received a square ball and was faced with what appeared to be an open goal: not so. Mignolet somehow scrambled back across the goalmouth to deny the striker with his legs – it was reminiscent of Dudek in Istanbul, and combined with his earlier save was responsible for 3 precious points. Even his most ardent critics had to give him praise for such a monumental performance, but they treated it as a flash in the pan. This is far from true: admittedly the Stoke game provided an extreme example, but these are by no means the first exceptional saves Mignolet has produced. Had he played in the Chelsea team for the past three seasons, where the system does not require excessive ball-playing from the keeper and there is a competent defence that provides at least some screening, he would likely be receiving the same plaudits as his compatriot Thibaut Courtois.
This is not to say that Mignolet has done nothing to warrant the criticism he has received: that sort of claim would be entirely unsustainable. His game was littered with stupid errors in his first couple of seasons, reaching a true nadir, at least in my mind, with his concession of an ultimately costly indirect free-kick through holding on to the ball for over twenty seconds. Even the world’s best shot-stopper would not be immune from criticism for some of the mistakes he made – the errors were definitely over-stated to the exclusion of all of his excellent saves, but they were nonetheless there. This is the real area where Mignolet has improved: what many are mistaking for a ‘transformation’ is really just an ironing out of some of the brainlessness that marred his start at the club. He has matured to a point where he puts his defenders under needless pressure much less than he used to, he can judge which high balls to come for, and his handling has improved no end. I have always defended Mignolet, but at the start of this season even I was of a mind that we needed to replace him if we wanted to be consistent title challengers; it is a huge testament to his progress that a significant minority amongst fans (myself included) now do not believe this to be the case.
How he has managed to achieve such growth in a ridiculously hostile environment is beyond me – fans have been slating him relentlessly. Perhaps the vitriol can be partially explained through a reluctance to acknowledge wider issues: it is strangely comforting to pin all the problems on the man between the sticks rather than acknowledge the significant defensive frailty that has plagued Liverpool for years. Is it a coincidence that Mignolet’s upsurge has coincided with the installation of Matip in our back line? Perhaps not. There is still plenty of work to do before the defence is at the level it needs to be, but as improvements continue to be made it may be that Mignolet shines more and more. As such, to my mind, a new goalkeeper is far from a priority in the summer – the money would be better invested in the people in front of the stopper. Whatever happens, we can be sure that the Belgian will take it in his stride like the model professional he is. Some respect for Mignolet is long overdue: if he can thrive this much when everybody is writing him off, maybe it’s about time to find out what he can do when we remember what YNWA stands for.