The sight of a Liverpool goalkeeper fumbling the ball into the net is one that has become all too familiar in recent seasons. Pepe Reina, in his latter Anfield years, looked at times as though he had buttered his gloves before walking out onto the pitch. His successor Simon Mignolet ensured that trend continued, as every cross was met with a flapping of hands similar to that of a disoriented chicken flapping its wings.
When German stopper Loris Karius came in this summer from Mainz, Liverpool fans thought those problems were behind them. It seemed a perfect signing, a young but reasonably experienced keeper, ready to put an end to the chaotic tumult of the Mignolet years. However, with Karius suffering yet another blunder on Sunday, failing to keep out a less than spectacular Payet free kick, questions have been raised as to whether the German has what it takes to be Liverpool’s no.1.
Of course, Liverpool’s problems go deeper than just the man between the sticks. For years now, their defence has leaked goals at alarming rates. Indeed, Liverpool’s back four in recent seasons has been made up of defenders with a tendency towards the unpredictable. Martin Skrtel was as good a centre back as any on his day, and the same could be said for the likes of Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren. However, those three have always lacked composure, a crucial attribute in a defence that wants to challenge for the title. It could be argued that such composure is borne from having a strong and reliable goalkeeper behind them, and this is where Liverpool are being let down at the moment.
For Karius though, perhaps he has found himself in an unfortunate position. Few expected Liverpool to mount anything resembling a title challenge this season, and so this sudden heightened expectation has placed more pressure on a goalkeeper who is still settling in to new surroundings. Indeed, the vitriol of some of the criticism Karius has received has been shocking. Jamie Carragher has been patronising in his comments, saying that Karius, a goalkeeper with over 100 senior appearances to his name, is not entitled to hit back at Gary Neville’s remarks.
While Jurgen Klopp has backed Karius since the beginning, the Liverpool boss is faced with a dilemma. If the Reds are to mount a title challenge this season, then mistakes like the ones Karius has made recently cannot continue. Whatever about the back four being questionable, you need a goalkeeper who can keep out shots like Payet’s on Sunday. However, reinstating Mignolet would surely be a step backwards. The nature of Karius’ recent form has led some Liverpool fans to forget just how poor Mignolet has been in the Anfield goal. Klopp is justified in sticking with Karius for now, but if he continues to cost Liverpool points, then a decision will need to be made.
But what if Liverpool’s goalkeeping woes extend to the coaching setup? The Reds’ goalkeeping coach John Achterberg took over first team duties in 2011, and has overseen Pepe Reina’s loss of form, Mignolet’s shambolic efforts, and now Karius’ rudimentary errors. Indeed, Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar has placed the blame solely at the feet of Achterberg, saying: “If he can’t right Mignolet’s wrongs in two years, then he shouldn’t be there.” Grobbelaar’s words are strong, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning. Mignolet is undeniably a good goalkeeper, and if a coach can’t help eliminate the flaws in his game, then how can he be expected to develop Karius into the world class player he has the potential to be.
Unfortunately for Klopp, the fast, attacking football that has defined his Liverpool tenure so far only serves to accentuate their defensive failings. Title successes are built on a strong back four and goalkeeper, and rarely does a team suffering from the defensive ineptitude Liverpool are currently showcasing manage to win the league – this was of course the Red’s downfall in 13/14 under Rodgers. When a defence is struggling, a goalkeeper must come into his own, and win points for his team, as we’ve seen the likes of De Gea and Lloris do for their respective sides. If Liverpool are to challenge for that elusive Premier League title this season, then Karius will need to accelerate his growth as a player, or else Klopp risks missing out on a massive chance for a serious title challenge.