An overarching story of Liverpool’s summer so far has been that of goalkeepers. Following the Champions League final, this was always going to be a major narrative and with the eventual signing of Alisson Becker for around £66 million from Roma, one could be forgiven for thinking that this subplot had finally reached its conclusion.
Alas no, talk from the club this week is that Loris Karius is unwilling to be the understudy to the world’s most expensive keeper, meaning Liverpool could now have to re-enter the market looking for a number 2. Here, I will look at potential signings alongside the goalkeepers still at Anfield to try and shed light on who would be the best understudy to Alisson.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Karius. This is a goalkeeper who at the tail end of last year, until the Champions League final, looked capable of becoming Liverpool’s number 1. Following the calamitous second half of that game, Karius was always facing an uphill struggle to become fully trusted by Liverpool fans again. Unfortunately, this added pressure seems to have affected him during pre-season with three mistakes already and constant abuse on social media.
There is no doubt that Karius had to be replaced as Liverpool’s first-choice to shield him from the intense pressure. But now the question is if he is mentally capable to be the understudy and to play in domestic cup competitions and step-in should Alisson be injured or suspended; in my eyes, he isn’t. I think that he has lost so much confidence that this is behind his admission that he is considering his Liverpool future. The best move Liverpool can make with Karius is either selling or loaning him abroad, so he can begin to rebuild his career out of the media spotlight.
It is incredible to think that Simon Mignolet has lasted 5 seasons with Liverpool. There hasn’t been a single season where he has done enough to convince fans he is of the level we demand for a first-choice goalkeeper. I’m not saying that Mignolet is a bad goalkeeper, he is a very good shot-stopper, in fact, he just isn’t at the elite level that Liverpool want their first-choice to be.
Despite lacking the commanding or distribution qualities that Liverpool require in a regular goalkeeper, Mignolet is a popular figure in the dressing room and already has working relationships with the defence, making him a serviceable back-up. Almost the perfect number 2. However, there is talk that Mignolet wants out of Anfield having been second-choice since January, with his involvement with Belgium at the World Cup being viewed as the main reason no move has yet happened. But now at this point of pre-season, there are not many teams looking for a first-choice goalkeeper. While it is unlikely to work in the long-term, Klopp might be able to convince Mignolet to stay as second-choice with the promise of domestic cup action.
Kamil Grabara is a very highly-thought-of 19-year-old academy prospect at Liverpool. From Poland, Grabara spent much of last season battling with fellow academy hopeful Caoimhin Kelleher to be first-choice under-23 goalkeeper, with Grabara the preferred option with 28 league appearances and being first-choice in the UEFA Youth League. As well as this, Grabara made his debut for the Polish under-21 side in November 2017, clearly showing his progression since arriving at Anfield for £297k in January 2016. Taking on the extra responsibility of being the main understudy at Anfield may be too big of an ask for the young Pole, but he will certainly be pushing for more first-team involvement in the near future.
Two years ago, Liverpool fans would have loved to have had Joe Hart at Anfield, he was England’s number 1 as well as Manchester City’s first-choice. Having won 4 premier league golden gloves (a joint-record) and won 2 premier league titles Hart’s pedigree was not in doubt. However, the arrival of Pep Guardiola at the Etihad found Hart surplus to requirements, meaning he’s spent the last 2 seasons out on loan at Torino and West Ham, where poor performances saw him lose not just his England starting spot but his place in the squad for the World Cup.
At 31, Joe Hart is now at a point where he needs to decide the path for the last few years of his career. With options limited in the Premier League, Hart may have to either move abroad, risk the anonymity for the national team of dropping down a division or take up an undoubtedly higher paid role as second-choice at a big Premier League team who will want his title-winning experience in the squad. A back-up role at Liverpool is not what Hart would have envisaged for this point of his career when he should be reaching his prime, however, it may be a convenient deal for all parties involved, at least until Hart is given a chance to be a number one in one of Europe’s top leagues again.
Nick Pope and Tom Heaton
If Hart’s stock has fallen in the last 2 seasons, then the stocks of Burnley’s goalkeepers Tom Heaton and Nick Pope have risen dramatically. Having impressed for Cardiff, Bristol City and Burnley in the Championship since 2010, Heaton took his impressive performances into the premier league with Burnley upon their promotion in the 14/15 season and again in the 16/17 season. Not only did he star but he also captained the side and kept 10 clean sheets in the 16/17 season while being a regular in England squads since June 2015.
Nick Pope joined Burnley in the summer of 2016 to be back-up to Tom Heaton, however, with Heaton having injury troubles early in the 17/18 season, Pope made 35 appearances. keeping 12 clean sheets and forcing himself into the England World Cup squad at his clubmate’s expense.
Clearly, both Heaton and Pope have the quality to be first-choice Premier League keepers, however, only one can do this at Burnley. Knowing this, Liverpool could take advantage and offer the second-choice keeper the same role but at a bigger club with more prestige. This is something which may be more enticing for Nick Pope who has worked up through the divisions having played in the National League for Aldershot as recently as 2013, while Heaton started off at Manchester United, albeit never making an appearance.
Pepe Reina would be a favourable choice to be back-up at Liverpool, amongst fans, given the success that he had in his previous spell with the Reds. Despite joining AC Milan earlier this summer, as a back-up, the rumours linking him with a move to Chelsea to reunite with former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri indicates that there is a small chance that Liverpool could bring back the goalkeeper that won an FA Cup, League Cup, 3 Premier League Golden Gloves and Liverpool Player of the Season 2009-2010 in his previous spell at the club.
At the beginning of this piece, I mused that despite the signing of Alisson, Liverpool’s involvement in the goalkeeper market may not be over. There are strong cases for Liverpool to consider each of Hart, Pope, Heaton and Reina as understudies to the Brazilian. However, Liverpool will only chase one of these if Klopp cannot convince one of Karius or Mignolet to stay as the second-choice, with Grabara remaining at the club this season before going out on loan next in order to build-up his experience, before being given a greater role in the first-team.