Ahead of Simon Mignolet’s move to Anfield last summer, I wrote this comparison of his and Pepe Reina’s form over the previous three seasons. The stats suggested that the Liverpool man was in decline whilst the Sunderland stopper was on the rise.
It was therefore interesting to see the image here on Twitter, which suggested that Reina had a better season performance-wise with Napoli in 2013/14 than Mignolet did with Liverpool. Whilst I don’t expect Reina to ever play for the Reds again, clearly the stats needed further investigation, so here’s what I found.
Save percentage appears to be a very debatable statistic. The above image from Sky listed Mignolet’s save percentage as 68%, ESPN claim he made 107 saves for a save ratio of 70.9%, and the figures I collated via StatsZone (as well as those showing on the NBC website) say it was 70.3% (104 saves from 148 shots on target). To ensure consistency, I am using the StatsZone figures, as they allow me to see where on the pitch the shots came from too.
Which ever of those figures are actually correct, the fact is that Pepe Reina performed significantly better. The on-loan Spaniard saved 109 of the 137 on target shots he faced with Napoli, meaning that his save percentage was 79.6%.
This is particularly interesting, as the last time he managed to perform so well was in 2007/08 (you can see his past figures here). During that season Reina’s manager was Rafa Benitez and his goalkeeping coach was Xavi Valero; no prizes for guessing who they were at Napoli last season. It may be coincidence, but the three Spaniards appear to combine very well when it comes to getting the most out of Pepe Reina.
To try to determine why Reina had a better save percentage than Mignolet in 2013/14, I have broken down the shots they faced into five zones: penalties, centre of the box, wide areas of the box, central outside the box, and then the rest (or ‘other’). As you would expect, the shots become easier to save as we go through the zones from penalties to ‘other’.
Although I didn’t see Napoli last season, my assumption from years of watching Benitez teams was that they wouldn’t have given away shots in as good positions as Rodgers’ Liverpool did last season, and less frequently too.
Yet that hasn’t particularly been the case. It’s true to say that the Italian team gave away a higher proportion of shots on target in the least profitable area (by 7%), but Reina had the opportunity to make a save every nineteen minutes, as opposed to every twenty-three for Mignolet.
Crucially, both teams allowed around a third of their opposition shots on target from the centre of the box, and at similar frequency too; one every sixty-seven minutes for Liverpool, and one every fifty-eight when Reina played for Napoli. Knowing this makes the below table make for fascinating reading.
To keep it simple, we can say that essentially every other on target shot from the centre of Liverpool’s box was scored, whereas it was only one in three when Reina kept goal for Napoli.
Had Mignolet matched Reina’s save percentage in the centre of the box then the Belgian would’ve conceded eleven fewer goals, which was one quarter of his total for the season (as own-goals are excluded here). That’s a significant amount of goals that might surely have seen Liverpool win the league had they not been conceded. The Reds only failed to win twelve league games in 2013/14, and nine of them featured at least one goal conceded in the centre of the Liverpool penalty area.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome from their performances this season is that Mignolet and Reina’s league save percentage for the last four seasons is now just 0.13% different.
The two ‘keepers also saw a change of their fortunes with regards to saving ‘big’ or ‘clear-cut’ chances. Here are their figures from 2012/13:
Here’s how they got on in 2013/14, and it was quite a turnaround. As with the total shot figures above, the rate that they faced these top quality chances was very similar; one every 107 minutes for Mignolet, and one every 113 for Reina.
The gap in save percentage here goes along way to explaining the difference between the two goalkeepers’ total figures. Excluding big chances, Mignolet saved 81% of the shots he faced, compared to Reina’s 84%, yet by only saving around a third of the big chances his overall figure dropped to 70% whilst Pepe held firm at 80%.
The former Sunderland ‘keeper won’t have been helped here by the fact that 22% of the shots on target he faced were big chances, as opposed to 17% for Reina.
Perhaps this is where my assumption regarding the parsimonious nature of Benitez teams manifests itself; although Napoli and Liverpool had similar figures for on target shots and big chances against frequency, a higher proportion of the chances against the Reds were top quality, which in part explains Mignolet’s lower save percentage figures.
By breaking the figures down further (albeit we’re then looking at really small samples), we can see how Mignolet started well with big chances and faded, whilst Reina started slowly before excelling later in the campaign.
Liverpool’s Belgian ‘keeper saved nine of the fourteen big chances he faced in the opening thirteen league games of his Reds career, including two in a matter of seconds in the final minute of the first game of the season.
However, he then had a run of twenty-one games where he didn’t save a single one, conceding twelve along the way, before keeping out two towards the end of the season (away at Norwich and home to Newcastle).
By contrast, Reina started the season slowly on this front, saving only three out of nine big chances across his first sixteen league matches for Napoli. Thereafter though he prevented ten of the fourteen opposition clear-cut chances that were on target from finding the net.
Who has performed better with big chances over the last two seasons? If we combine the figures from the above two charts….
…we can see that Pepe Reina has (just) been the better of the two, although much like with the saves across four seasons above, Mignolet has faced so many more (by eighty-three to forty-six) that I think his stats are the more valid of the two.
I’ll finish with a quick review of the defensive error stats. Both players made five that lead to an opposition goal in 2013/14, with Mignolet making a further two that only resulted in a shot whilst Reina made one.
The on-loan Napoli goalkeeper played fewer minutes though, so the figures are similar pro-rata; Mignolet made an error every 488 minutes that he played, whilst Reina made an on-ball howler every 432 minutes. Perhaps my biggest concern here is that Mignolet made more errors in 2013/14 than he made in his last two seasons at Sunderland, and only two fewer than in his last three campaigns on Wearside. That said, he’s still ahead of Reina overall; here are the stats for the last four seasons.
As I mentioned at the start, I can’t see Reina ever playing for Liverpool again; the fact that he out-performed Mignolet last season won’t change that. The big Belgian performed at a higher level than Reina had been, and from Brendan Rodgers’ point of view, that has to be the main thing. Mignolet needs a better season on a personal level in 2014/15 though, else he will definitely be in danger of being replaced just as Reina was.