Southampton were victorious over Liverpool on Saturday for a variety of reasons; being clinical in the box and competitive all over the pitch being two very important ones.
But they also pressed from the front to limit the Reds’ passing options, knowing full well that Mignolet is not particularly comfortable on the ball, and sure enough, the big Belgian gave possession over to them twenty-one times over the course of the match.
Is this the goalkeeper’s fault though? I’ve reviewed the figures from Stats Zone, and they have raised some interesting questions about Liverpool’s strategy on this front.
Before we start on passing, a quick word of praise for Mignolet. The former Mackem has saved twenty-five of the twenty-eight (89.3%) on target efforts that Liverpool have allowed their opponents this season. By comparison, Pepe Reina only saved sixteen (57.1%) of the first twenty-eight shots he faced in 2012/13, so on that front Mignolet has been a definite upgrade, and I think overall it was the correct decision to change goalkeeper.
But his distribution of the ball remains a significant concern. Opposing teams have wised up to this fact and have pressed Liverpool’s defence accordingly. This can be seen in the increase in number of back passes that the Reds have made as the season has gone on, and the number of times that Mignolet has lost possession and kicked the ball long has grown along similar lines:
Brendan Rodgers needs to figure out a tactic to counteract this issue, and swiftly, as Liverpool’s opponents will no doubt continue to employ this tactic if they have seen the success that the Saints had using it at Anfield.
I suspect that solution lies in giving Mignolet better options from his teammates. For instance, there are no real issues with his passing in the defensive third of the pitch, as he has been accurate with thirty-five of his thirty-eight passes (92.1%) in this area so far this season.
But when he doesn’t have a suitable option here he goes long with the ball, and this is where the problems start. Just eighteen of his eighty-two passes (22%) into the front two thirds of the pitch have found a colleague, giving him an overall pass completion rate of just 42.4%.
Mihail Vladimirov (who you should follow on Twitter for tactical insight) offered me the following opinion:
I’ve always thought the benefit of having a double pivot is that one of them, if not both, can drop towards the CBs and create overload in that zone, collecting and carrying the ball safely from there. So strange to see when under pressure the CBs are preferring to pass back to the GK and not use the double pivot.
Having a back 4 and a dropping double pivot should create a numerical advantage, as I doubt there would be team who is willing to push 6 players so high up the pitch to press us and risk being exposed by DS, VM and soon LS (Sturridge, Moses and Suárez).
But for this to happen it should be pre-determined as pattern and trained to become 2nd nature. Which is BR’s job. And that’s my worry – this season it seems he is focusing as heavily on defending without the ball as he is seemingly not working on how to see his team being proactively reactive with the ball. Strange, as he is presumably possession-based.
Having collated the figures via Stats Zone, I can reveal that Gerrard, Lucas and Henderson are directly offering Mignolet little assistance themselves. Of the 87 passes by Mignolet that are logged as reaching a teammate, just ten in total have reached the aforementioned three midfielders, and each of them has had three games where the goalkeeper hasn’t passed to them at all.
Shouldn’t part of the blame for Mignolet’s poor passing stats lie with them for not providing a better outlet? As Mihail notes above, if not a direct outlet for the keeper, at least better options for the defence to work with, rather than having them passing back to Mignolet and increasing the pressure upon him?
Another thing I can’t fathom at present is the frequency with which Mignolet launches free kicks down the park. Take a look at his free kick chart from the Southampton match, as an example:
Two went short and were collected by a team mate, but four went long and every one gifted possession back to the visitors. Knowing that Mignolet has poor long range kicking, why has he been instructed this season to hit thirteen out of the fifteen free kicks he has taken long, resulting in a completion rate of just 33%?
I appreciate that teams need to employ variety in their play, but when this is clearly not working surely he’d be better off passing the ball short to a defender who is comfortable on the ball, like Agger or Sakho for instance, and let them play the ball out?
This short piece has probably raised more questions than answers, and as a tactical novice I’m not the man to provide the solutions. Brendan Rodgers is paid to resolve such issues however, and it’s clear he needs to sort this out sooner rather than later.