Mignolet’s good day, bad day: What do we want from goalkeepers?

Thanks to a flood of late first half goals, the final score at the Emirates was the least interesting part of Liverpool’s mid-day visit to Arsenal. A frenetic start from the Gunners initially appeared to be weathered by the visitors, who slowly established themselves at the edge of Arsenal’s defensive third, but with goals from Hector Bellerín, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez in the eight minutes before intermission, the home team dealt a major blow to Liverpool’s Champions League hopes. With a 4-1 loss in North London, Liverpool remains five points back of fourth. By day’s end, the club could also sit in sixth place.

The explanations for the result seem somewhat easy: Arsenal pressed the hell out of a Liverpool team that couldn’t move the ball out of its half of the field, giving the Gunners a 3-0 halftime lead. Though Liverpool’s defense gave up some opportunities early (as well as one on Bellerín’s opener), the game got out of hand when half-chances from beyond the area found nylon. Both Özil’s and Sánchez’s goals should have been stopped.

The fault on those goals fell on goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Though the Belgian did a fine job on two diving saves early, his guesswork on the second and third goals took Liverpool out of the match. As much as he seemed calm and composed on Arsenal’s early chances, Mignolet appeared uncertain after Bellerín’s opener. Instead of being out of the game, Liverpool should have gone into halftime down one.

The second goal came from a dead ball just beyond the right side of Liverpool’s penalty area. Mignolet positioned himself too far behind his wall, eventually second guessing himself and hesitating as Özil ran onto his shot. Well-placed, the German’s try allowed him to take advantage of any opening Mignolet provided. With a step to his left and a slow reaction to the shot, Mignolet obligated. This ball should have been stopped:

Five minutes later, as the half approached added time, Mignolet appeared to guess wrong again. As Sánchez hit a half volley from straight on, just outside the penalty area, Mignolet leaned slightly toward his right post. Had he instead gone straight up, pushing the shot over the bar with a technique we see keepers commonly use, Sánchez’ well-struck but poorly placed ball would have been saved. Instead, it snuck just under the crossbar:

When balls are struck as well as Özil’s and Sánchez’s, we tend to credit the attackers – as we should. Each player did enough to reach that hypothetical threshold where a goal becomes possible. Unfortunately, both of those shots needed a little help. It’s at the point where Mignolet deserves blame.

Too often on these types of shots, goalkeepers get a pass. That the ball is hit often absolves them in the eyes of pundits, though behind the scenes, coaches and keepers are more critical. They can’t afford to be as lenient as us. They have to ask ‘could this shot have been stopped?’ Twice on Saturday, that answer was yes, for Mignolet. An attacker’s effort doesn’t excuse flaws in a keeper’s execution.

Paradoxically, the second half presented an opposing situation, one where a keeper gets too much credit (instead of being absolved). Consider this early second half save from Mignolet, which drew plaudits from the broadcast team:

This is an obligatory save. Goalkeepers are expected to be in that position, expected to save a ball when it’s within an arm’s length of his body. Because of the reflex nature of it, the stop was treated as extraordinary, but if your club’s keeper can’t make this save, your club has a terrible goalkeeper.

So what, exactly, do we want from goalkeepers? Or, put another way, why do we tend to lean toward the spectacular instead of evaluating stops in terms of other factors, like positioning, or whether other players would have performed better? It’s a loaded question, as anything we deem “spectacular” is, by definition, something that’s being lauded, hence the analysis of the two Arsenal goals and Mignolet’s reflex stop. In all three cases, though, spectacular was deceptive.

It shouldn’t be forgotten than Mignolet appeared to make two very good saves early, but when you’re at Liverpool’s level, competing for a Champions League spot, your players should be net positives; at least, when it comes to their position’s basics. Clear errors should be rare, or forced. But on Saturday, Mignolet was closer to a break even player. Had he maintained his early form, Liverpool would have gone into halftime with a chance to get a result.

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