Simon Mignolet interview: Liverpool goalkeeper has a new mantra - think less, act more

Belgian lost his form – and place – because he was over-analysing his options in Liverpool’s goal, he realised when his observant fiancée told him. Now, he’s back and, he tells Ian herbert, relying on his instincts as he prepares to face Crystal Palace in the FA Cup

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The Independent Football

It is the fact that Simon Mignolet has prepared notes for this conversation which reveals the most. He indicated to Liverpool’s press people that he wanted to talk and, while doing so, keeps going back to “the thing I wanted to say today” in a way that tells this is not just another football interview but a sculpted insight, into how a player’s game can unravel and be put back together again.

He reflects that things fell apart because he was thinking too much about his football, though the irony of him having thought so deeply about how to explain that fact makes you see that introspection can’t be put on and off like a switch. Mignolet will always be deep thinking and we can give thanks for that.

His readiness to speak is unexpected in these buttoned-up days of football platitudes and, though Liverpool stand apart among the top Premier League clubs in their willingness to entertain an interaction between players and people like us, Mignolet could be forgiven for putting up the barricades.

Publicly and brutally, his game has been pulled apart in the past six months, when even members of the fabled goalkeepers’ union have been willing to weigh in. A former custodian of his Liverpool jersey, Bruce Grobbelaar, compared him unfavourably to Dracula in November “because at least Dracula comes out of his coffin every now and then. [Mignolet] seems to stay on his line.”

Everton’s Tim Howard wondered whether Mignolet would ever reclaim the shirt after Brendan Rodgers had quietly taken the 26-year-old aside at Melwood, on 13 December, and told him that Brad Jones – who had played 10 league games in four years – would be starting at Old Trafford the following day. It certainly felt like a brutal moment to withdraw him from the line of fire.

It was fate – rather than the Belgian’s relentlessly positive philosophy about the break from the train-play-train routine doing him good – which brought him back into the fold. Jones had been between the posts for just two games when he sustained a thigh injury against Burnley on Boxing Day, delivering Mignolet his place back.

Then, a few hours after a moment of the same indecision at Turf Moor that had characterised the player’s decline – allowing a back pass to roll out for a corner – Mignolet’s fiancée, Jasmien Claes, made a very acute observation over dinner. “Simon, are you sometimes overthinking stuff?” she asked.

“Those were her words,” Mignolet relates. His family were over for Boxing Day night and, that hardly being the time for an inquisition, his reply was succinct. “I didn’t really give a response at the time…,” he says. “I said: ‘We think about things.’”

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It was the following day, back out on the Melwood training pitches with John Achterberg, Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach, that the same notion was coincidentally put to him professionally. A penny dropped. Mignolet, an individual who says his own disinclination to go piling in is born of his upbringing – “someone who went to school, university… not someone who will act impulsively or do crazy things… not the sort of person who will wake up and go and buy myself a Ferrari” – decided it was time to start thinking less.

“I wanted to do well and find the best solution in games but it’s not always possible,” he says. “Especially as a goalkeeper, when you are closed down, you have to make a decision in a split second, and sometimes it is better to make the wrong one rather than wait and see what’s happening.

“So I tried to change and just make a decision – rather than thinking too much – because then you are doubting what to do and you are losing time and don’t have that, especially in the Premier League. After that I made sure I acted and was more decisive and commanding, and ever since it has gone very well. I am very pleased with what we changed…”

The benefits have been self-evident. Tuesday night’s performance against Tottenham, with an exceptional save from Erik Lamela, confirmed Jose Mourinho’s description of him at Stamford Bridge, in the League Cup,  at the end of last month. “Amazing,” said the Chelsea manager.

 

It didn’t surprise Mignolet that his fiancée should have contributed to the solution some very substantial minds, including Liverpool’s psychiatrist, Dr Steve Peters, and head of performance, Glen Driscoll, had been engaged in helping Mignolet to find. Jasmien watches all of his matches. And she watches him at all of his matches. “Yes, she knows when to speak about football to me and when to leave me alone,” Mignolet says.

The fight to maintain belief was his and his alone, though – and he is acutely aware of what a lonely and destructive place the environment of self-doubt can be. Mignolet is not a big reader, despite having completed a degree course in political sciences in 2012, but his favourite book is Ronald Reng’s biography of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper whose struggle with the demons led him to take his own life, six years ago.

Mignolet grew up in the east of Belgium, near the German border, so followed Enke’s fortunes every Saturday on the channel Die Sportschau. He studied his saves on YouTube and loved him. “He was the first goalkeeper I looked up to,” he reflected after Enke’s death. “His work botched his life. As a goalkeeper I recognise myself in some of his situations, but I’m rational in those things. I take my mistakes home, but I try to forget them as fast as possible. In my first season in Belgium, every mistake was a drama. I was thinking after every defeat: ‘Now I’m going to lose my place.’ Nowadays a bad game is still spinning in my head, but only for one night.”

It must have been hard to sustain that philosophy, last autumn. Every goal seemed to be Mignolet’s fault – including Phil Jagielka’s thunderous equaliser in the Anfield derby last October, of which Sky Sports’ Gary Neville concluded that the Belgian might have stopped the shot if he had not crouched so low.

He has predetermined not to discuss individual critics here, though it was obviously a surprise to find members of his own goalkeeping fraternity publicly questioning him – especially when Grobbelaar knows what scrutiny the Liverpool job brings.

“You mean like a goalkeepers’ union?” Mignolet says to the notion that this breed generally protect their own. “Yes, obviously goalkeepers do the same training sessions and know about things – they are the only ones who can speak about being a goalkeeper because they have done the job and experienced it and know what it is like to make an error and be criticised. So yeah… but on the other hand you learn and move on.”

He actually thought he was out of the forest when Rodgers dropped him. “Before the Manchester United game we had conceded two goals in the last four games and kept two clean sheets in the league, so initially when the gaffer told me I was disappointed,” he says. But there were some dark moments when he came back in that game at Burnley: conceding the needless corner and having Danny Ings charge down an early clearance, amid loud derision from the terraces.

“During the game, probably because of all that had happened before, I was always looking to find the best possible solutions for situations,” he says. “What I then forget – the corner I gave away was the best example of that – was that because I was thinking, ‘You could do this, you could do that,’ I was trying to find the right player to pass to, but forgot what was the worst solution – which was to give a corner away, which is quite funny when you think about it.”

This story he tells is littered with appreciation of how Rodgers has helped him through, though it is a measure of his desire to get it right that a message arrives two hours after we have finished talking, to reinforce his thanks to the manager and coaching staff “for backing me throughout this spell. The manager has shown his faith and confidence – it shows he believes in me – and I appreciate that.”

There will certainly be a Valentine’s Day present for his fiancée. “That can be your headline,” he jokes. They are to be married this summer, though he knows there are no such assurances about a career in goalkeeping. “I am not a character who gets carried away with good or bad performances and I won’t get carried away by bigger or lesser critics,” he says. “It’s the same when you get praise. You can’t get carried away with that.”

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