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19th Sep 2016

Why events of the summer of 2013 have left Simon Mignolet in no doubt as to Loris Karius’s threat

Tony Barrett

“I always felt it was important for us to have competition right the way through the squad, and that includes the goalkeepers. We’ve got great competition and when you’ve got competition it pushes everyone to perform.” Brendan Rodgers, July 2013.

Simon Mignolet knows better than most what competition means. When he joined Liverpool from Sunderland in 2013, his new club’s public position was that his arrival would put much needed pressure on Pepe Reina’s place.

There was no preferred number one, the pair would fight it out and whoever performed better would earn the right to play. Within a month Reina had joined Napoli on loan and Mignolet’s position as first choice was unchallenged. So much for competition.

This time around, Mignolet is on the other end. He is the goalkeeper in possession and he is the one whose status is threatened by a new arrival. He is also hearing his manager, Jurgen Klopp, saying similar things to those said by Rodgers when trying to give the illusion of competition three years earlier.

Back then, Mignolet knew that a decision had already been made about who would be Liverpool’s number one and it had gone in his favour, he would not have made a £9 million move from Sunderland otherwise.

Now, the boot is on the other foot and he will fear, with no little legitimacy, that Loris Karius’s long awaited debut at Derby County on Tuesday night will be the signal that his own run is coming to an end.

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND - JULY 20: Loris Karius of Liverpool during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Huddersfield Town and Liverpool at the Galpharm Stadium on July 20, 2016 in Huddersfield, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Looking ahead to the third round EFL Cup tie, Klopp knew that the question about who would play in goal was coming and he was ready for it. Some fairly nimble verbal gymnastics followed in which the Liverpool manager trotted out the usual platitudes that Rodgers had also resorted to in the summer of 2013 as he sought to avoid showing favour to either Karius or Mignolet.

But the upshot was that Klopp neither said Mignolet will automatically come back in against Hull City on Saturday nor that the Belgium international is his number one. Mignolet’s place is clearly up for grabs.

The reality is that had Karius not suffered a fractured hand during pre-season a succession would already have taken place. Having been frustrated at a lack of playing time during a brief spell at Manchester City, the German under-21 international agreed to join Liverpool from Mainz during the summer on the basis that he would play and Klopp had planned to pick him in the opening games of the new season before injury struck.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool looks on while his team warm up during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on September 10, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Such was Karius’s confidence that he would start ahead of Mignolet, who had returned to pre-season later than his rival having been involved with Belgium at Euro 2016, that he informed Horst Hrubesch the German Olympic national team coach, that he would not be available to travel to Brazil due to club commitments.

Mignolet was given a stay of execution and despite conceding eight goals in the first five games of the new campaign he has done enough for it to be considered slightly harsh, if not unfair or unexpected, if he does now lose his place.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 14: Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool celebrates victory with Simon Mignolet after the UEFA Europa League quarter final, second leg match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund at Anfield on April 14, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Tellingly, Klopp provided him with no assurances and offered no guarantees. Instead, the language centred on competition and what it brings. Mignolet knows better than most exactly what that usually means, particularly with his manager waxing lyrical about how Karius is the latest talent to emerge from a German production line of goalkeepers that Klopp believes is the best in world football.

“In the moment when we signed him you can imagine we thought he is not so bad. That’s how it is,” Klopp said after confirming that Karius will play at Derby.

“He was a really strong Bundesliga goalkeeper, that means a lot. Germany is a goalkeeper country. We have no issue with goalkeepers. The best keeper (Manuel Neuer) plays at Bayern Munich and is German. We always had good ones, maybe not always the best in the world, but good ones. The mentality is we like this job. The kids like to wear gloves. It’s good to be in goal for a Bundesliga team. I saw Karius’s way. He had a bad start at Mainz, when no-one wanted him, and went on to become an outstanding goalkeeper. We wanted him, I spoke to him and that is what we got.”

Klopp then pre-empted the inevitable.

“I know where your question will lead,” he said before providing a dextrous and diplomatic answer that he hoped would defuse a delicate situation.

“What we want is two really strong goalkeepers and that is what I think we have got,” he said.

“Loris had an advantage in pre-season and could not use it because of injury. Simon came in this moment back from the national team and did a brilliant job. I really don’t want to make a big battle of these two goalkeepers, why should I? Goalkeepers need to feel secure but you can’t play your life as a keeper without conceding goals. You will always feel a bit guilty, more or less.

“But you want a manager who will say you can still stay and feel confident. I can’t say ‘today, him and then today him’. The pressure on the players is big enough. I don’t have to make any more, they have to do their best and then when I have a feeling for something I will change, or not. It is not because we paid money for Loris and did not pay money last year for Simon that I make the decision. It is about what I see in training, and what I see is two very good goalkeepers. The business is done and now they have to perform.”

Should Karius perform tomorrow night as Klopp believes a German keeper should, in terms of both style and substance, Mignolet’s place will be in jeopardy.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: Simon Mignolet of Liverpool in action during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on September 16, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Asked if the former Sunderland goalkeeper would come straight back into the side against Hull regardless of how Karius plays, an affirmative response was not forthcoming.

“Where is my possibility to answer?” he asked. “When I say ‘yes’ what does it mean for Loris? If I say ‘no’ what does it mean for Simon? This question makes sense but the answer would not. There is no number one at this moment, there is no decision, it is just about performing and showing how good you are. For all players it is the same. I won’t say someone is our centre-half for the next 15 months. It is about performing and improving. Show how much you can help the team.”

That there is no number one at this moment is good news for the player who has not been playing and not particularly good for the one who has.

Nevertheless, Mignolet remains sanguine about the situation he is facing. “I knew when I signed my new contract back in January that there would be some other goalkeepers coming in. It’s nice to see,” he told the latest edition of Liverpool’s official club magazine.

“We need a big squad and it’s good to have competition. It pushes you on and makes you want to perform at your best even more. I think having competition like that is how you create a good team.”

Another way of creating a good team is to bring in better players than the one you have. That, more often than not, is what competition boils down to.

Unlike Reina three years ago, Mignolet is still in there fighting and could yet defy expectations by holding off Karius’s challenge but should his rival live up to Klopp’s billing change will come, the only question is when it occurs.

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