Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina continued his ropey start to the season with a shaky showing in the 3-1 defeat against Aston Villa at home last weekend prompting a fresh batch of calls for the club to seriously consider entertaining offers for him in January, and with Arsenal waiting in the wings, should they simply cut and run?
Firstly, let’s just say that this isn’t the Reina that we all have become accustomed to seeing over the years. Since arriving at Liverpool from Villarreal back in 2005, he went on to win the Golden Gloves award for most clean sheets in a season for three years running between 2006-08 and even if Rafael Benitez’s final season at the club, where the side finished a disappointing seventh in the league, he managed to keep 17 clean sheets in the league on his way to becoming the club’s Player of the Season. In short, he was not always this bad.
Nevertheless, bad is exactly what he is these days and according to Opta he’s been directly responsible for four errors which have led to goals this season. Considering that Arsenal looked set to spend the best part of £20m on him after his final good season for the club back in 2009-10, Brendan Rodgers would be fortunate to get half of that amount now, despite him still only being 30 years of age, which means he’s not even at his peak yet, which tells you everything you need to know about his decline.
The theory at the start of the season is that under Rodgers new management, a return to a more ball-playing style of play would see Reina revert back to the goalkeeper-sweeper role he occupied so successfully under Benitez; he is capable with the ball at his feet, much more so than most of his peers and a 74 % pass completion rate this term does back that up, which is significantly more than Petr Cech’s 57%, Tim Howard’s 55% and Joe Hart’s 61%.
That statistic alone does not mean all that much, but when you couple it with the average length of these passes, which tells you a bit more about what areas they are being played into, with short passes around the back four rather than a casual hoof forward and yet again, Reina’s average distance of 36m stands favourably against Mark Schwarzer’s 42m, Brad Guzan’s 52m and Michel Vorm’s 39m, three goalkeepers we can all agree play for teams who prefer to keep the ball on the floor above all else if they can, much like Liverpool. So with Reina, you’re clearly getting a player who is a much more rounded player
The problem is clearly not with him as a player, rather what he offers as a goalkeeper these days, which suffice to say, isn’t quite what it used to be. Come to think of it, for a shot-stopper, Reina doesn’t really stop all that much and there’s a theory that Reina was for some time unhappy with the coaching methods at the club under the likes of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish and prior to Rodgers arrival. Reina saved 69% of the shots he faced in the league last season, which is also the average across the board in the top flight, which is significantly down from his average across his eight-year association at the club of 78%.
Reina flourished in his first few seasons under goalkeeping coach Jose Ochoterana between 2005-7 and then Xavi Valero between 2007-10, which was when Benitez left the club. His performances under both Mike Kelly for a short period and now American coach John Achterberg has simply not been up to scratch and he average well under 70% shots to saves ratio under their tutelage.
According to the Premier League’s own website, where they judge using their own ratings system, Reina is the 14th best performing goalkeeper in the top flight this term, and no player below him has played as many minutes, meaning that from a wider sample, had the likes of Brad Friedel, Hugo Lloris and Wojciech Szczesny played more, in all likelihood, he could even be a lot lower. He’s even ranked behind both Tim Krul and Ben Foster, despite playing more games.
To try and use a fair sample, let’s pick John Ruddy and Tim Krul to compare Reina with more in-depth; all three have made 13 league appearances this term and all three are considered first-choice at their respective clubs and occupy broadly similar areas in the league at the moment, despite Newcastle struggling more than previously assumed.
Reina has made 42 saves in his 13 games, Ruddy 74 and Krul 78 – of course, that will be effected by how the rest of the team is performing, there will be games when Reina has little to do because Liverpool are playing well and vice versa. Reina has kept just two clean sheets to Ruddy’s five and Krul’s one. The Spaniard has made on average, just 3.23 saves per game, to Ruddy’s 5.69 and Krul’s 6.0. Reina has caught 64% of those efforts to Ruddy’s 72% and Krul’s 50%.
This is just a brief snapshot of data, but what it tells us is that Reina is doing no better with less than Ruddy who has to face more each and every game. Newcastle and Netherlands international Krul is having a season to forget so far, much like a lot of his team-mates and Reina bares favourable comparison with him, but it just brings home the point that the general consensus that Reina is underperforming is a solid one.
Let’s compared Reina briefly to himself. Most of us would agree that the ultimate aim of a goalkeeper is to keep shots out and stop goals, but if they can hold onto the ball then all the better. Given that Reina has held onto just 64% of efforts on his goal this term, this is his worst return ever in the Premier League; it was 66% last season, 76% the year before that, 67% back in 2009-10, 75% the season after that, 72% in 2007-8, 70% in 2006-7 and 74% in his debut campaign back in 2005-6.
This displays more than a hint of decline. His strongest asset used to be his handling ability, which then filtered into other facets of his game to make him an authoritative presence, but at the moment it looks shot. From game to game, it’s clear that the player himself is lacking confidence and this must be the main reason why. The areas where he is strongest are now ones which have been cruelly exposed.
If you’re wondering, Wigan’s Ali Al Habsi, the goalkeeper recently linked as replacing Reina on Merseyside, has caught just 51% of shots on goal this season, but further highlighting that he’s more an eccentric, somewhat inconsistent but often brilliant flyer, he’s parried parried 18% and punched 16% of the shots he’s faced. He’s a completely different type of goalkeeper entirely, and that has to be considered before the club makes any move; what exactly are you forsaking, even if he passing accuracy of 66% is better than you may have thought. It’s all about styles and what suits the rest of the team.
The only argument ever for selling a player is that there’s a better one available and for a similar, perhaps even cheaper price. There are deals to be done in the January transfer window, certainly more so than is often assumed, while I’m not so sure that Al Habsi is necessarily a better goalkeeper than Reina as such, for they have different strengths, by hook or by crook, he seems to get his flailing limps to more and make more outstanding saves, which on a purely visceral and hardly objective basis, is what most will look for.
Birmingham’s Jack Butland has been linked in recent days too, but he looks simply like another Paul Robinson mark 2 to me, a player never quite in control of any situation and he’s far too raw to gamble on, which makes it frustrating that the club never even considered Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris when he was available in the summer at Lyon for around £10m, what you;d expect Reina to fetch.
The word ‘servant’ is often trotted out once player’s have outstayed their welcome but they want to be ushered out of the door politely for what they achieved when they were able to contribute in a consistently positive way. The saddest indictment of Reina’s form at Anfield the past few seasons is that he’s becoming dangerously close to straying into the ‘committee servant’ area. Due to the lack of viable alternative available in January, the Spanish international should be given until the end of the season to turn his fortunes around, but once the summer comes, no matter what complimentary noises are coming from Rodgers’ mouth, unless there’s a notable improvement, he should be shown the door.