Fiancee’s wise words help Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet reclaim best form
Drawing a distinction between his character and the flash, impulsive Premier League stereotype is important to Simon Mignolet. “I am not the sort of person who will wake up and go and buy myself a Ferrari,” he stresses when, in truth, no explanation is required. Forget his degree in political science or fluency in four languages, Mignolet has set himself apart by requesting this interview. A highly unusual move. He wants to discuss the flaws that prompted Brendan Rodgers to drop him and Bruce Grobbelaar to ridicule him. He wants to credit his fiancee with the recovery that has followed. Liverpool’s goalkeeper does not need a Ferrari to stand outfrom the crowd.
This season has necessitated self-analysis by the Belgium international. In December he was dropped for “an indefinite period” by the*Liverpool*manager after a run of form that spread anxiety through an already uncertain defence. Rodgers highlighted Mignolet’s kicking as a particular concern, and Crystal Palace can testify to that.
Liverpool’s FA Cup fifth-round opponents scored after the 26-year-old conceded a throw-in from a routine free-kick in November. Ludogorets prospered from another error three days later.
“A hard road back” was Tim Howard’s assessment of his Merseyside rival’s predicament, the Everton keeper adding: “When you get taken out of the team, sometimes there’s no way back.” But Mignolet is back, producing vital saves from Seamus Coleman and Erik Lamela to maintain Liverpool’s push for Champions League qualification in his last two outings and preserving as many clean sheets in his last five Premier League matches – four – as in 21 appearances from the start of the campaign. Boxing Day proved the turning point – but not when he reclaimed the jersey against Burnley from the injured Brad Jones. It arrived later that night when Mignolet’s fiancee, Jasmien, broached the subject of a back pass he had allowed to run out of play when attempting to clear his lines at Turf Moor.
The Liverpool keeper explains: “I played half-decent, came for some crosses, but what happened in that game changed a lot of what’s happened since. It was in the first half when I got closed down on a back pass. It was Boxing Day, my family were over here, and my missus and everyone were having dinner when she said: ‘Simon, are you sometimes over-thinking stuff?’
“Those were her words. I didn’t really give a response at the time. She knows when to speak to me about football and when to leave me alone. The next day I went into training and as we were analysing the game the coaching staff gave me the same words.
“That was the trigger in my mind that we had to say ‘Look, we have to sort this out’. Jasmien comes to every single game and follows it. We’ve been together since before I was a footballer and she knows me better than anyone, my character, that’s why she said it.
“She knows in my private life I am not the sort of person who will wake up and go and buy myself a Ferrari, which some people might do. I am maybe over the top in that sense. It comes from my education, how I have been brought up by my parents. I have always tended to over-think things and that had come into my game. That’s good in certain moments but not when you have to make a quick decision.
“I was basically thinking too much over what was best to do and losing time rather than playing my natural game. I was always looking to find the best possible solution in situations, the right player to pass to, thinking ‘you could do this, you could do that,’ and was forgetting what was the worst solution, like giving away the corner at Burnley. So I made the decision that rather than thinking too much I would be more decisive and commanding and ever since then it has gone very well.”
Mignolet consulted John Achterberg, Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach, the head of performance, Glen Driscoll, and the sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters over the tweaks needed to rediscover the form that prompted Rodgers to pay Sunderland £9m for him in 2013. “He came into the picture to help me do certain things before a game,” says the keeper of Peters’ involvement.
“It has helped me especially on high balls coming into the box, on crosses, making a split decision coming out of the box, clearing balls and back passes. There are some things that are going better than before.”
When it was bad, and the 3-1 league defeat at Selhurst Park marked the nadir for Rodgers’ team this season, the goalkeepers’ union did not show much solidarity. While Howard criticised Mignolet’s demotion, Grobbelaar dipped into the book of crap 1980s football jokes to compare the Liverpool goalkeeper’s problem with crosses to Dracula. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher faulted Mignolet for Phil Jagielka’s stupendous equaliser in September’s Merseyside derby at Anfield. Liverpool’s No1 will always stop to answer questions after a game regardless of the criticism that might be coming his way but he refused to bite back. It is not in his nature.
“I did not want to speak up too early because I am not one who likes to speak,” he explains. “I wanted to wait for a few performances to talk about it and I think this moment is right to speak up. I am my own biggest critic. After every game I analyse my performance with the goalkeeping coach in a very critical manner. There is certain criticism you will take on board and other things that do not affect you. You cannot look too far into that because it can destruct you in a certain way.”
Grobbelaar’s criticism was personal, vindictive even, but Mignolet harbours no resentment towards his Anfield predecessor. “I would shake his hand if I met him,” he insists. “I appreciate him for what he has done for this club and I respect him for the major trophies he won for Liverpool.”
Whatever strides Mignolet has made recently, he knows he will be judged only on Saturday’s performance at Palace and must constantly prove himself at Liverpool. Rodgers is sure to sign a new goalkeeper this summer.
“I relish being under that pressure,” he says. “I remember playing in front of 500 people in the second division in Belgium and I prefer to play under the pressure of a Champions League game against Real Madrid at Anfield.”
As for Jasmien, will her Boxing Day advice result in a special gift this Valentine’s Day?
“You can put this as the headline,” jokes Mignolet: “She gets a Valentine every day".
Didn't realise he was a smart cookie.