Opinion

The Karius Conundrum

Liverpool fans know better than anyone the feeling of insecurity when you’re winning 3-0. Wait, what?

David James, Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek, Chris Kirkland, Pepe Reina, Simon Mignolet – what do they all have in common?

Howlers, that’s what. Each and every one of these ‘keepers committed a grave error (or five) that allowed some lucky fucker to score an important, yet utterly undeserved goal. Oh and they all played for Liverpool at the time. I won’t drag up painful, long since forgotten memories of Diego Forlan, Andy Johnson and Eric Cantona; but it’s well worth remembering that, by now, we should all be fairly well conditioned to the odd goalkeeping shitshow.

So now on to our current, much maligned, man of the moment; German goalie, part-time Instagram model, full-time heartbreaker – Loris Karius.

In typical Redmen fashion, Loris has given us our fair share of ‘what the actual fuck’ moments, as we’ve come to expect. He has won us points, lost us cup finals and had every sports writer, pundit, pro footballer, John from the pub, and twitter scout talking about him; all whilst looking like unspoiled perfection. And recently, much to the displeasure of many of twitter’s finest, word got out that Saint Jürgen, our Lord and Saviour, will stand by his man and won’t be pursuing a new goalkeeper.

I will attempt to explain why I think that Karius, for all of his sins, is not only rated extremely highly by Klopp (Liebe von anderen Deutschen, right?), but also by much of the wider footballing world. I will try to find method in the madness of our manager in sticking with his boy, and perhaps provide a case to suggest that Jürgen Klopp isn’t mental after all.

 

Let’s cast our minds back to July 2009

Liverpool had just finished 2nd in the league and Steven Gerrard was top scorer with 24 goals, utterly irrelevant but I wanted to get this in here. Playing for Stuttgart u17s was a floppy-haired, ugly duckling, soon-to-be swan, 17 year old goalkeeper called Loris Karius. He apparently had something about himself because Man City paid £225k for his services. After a season with the City u18s, he was promoted to the reserves and made a total of 4 appearances (2 clean sheets, 6 conceded – for anyone who gives a toss). In August 2011, Loris was given a move back to Germany, initially on a short-term loan but then a free transfer saw him sign a permanent deal in January 2012 with Klopp’s old team, Mainz. He played out the rest of the the 11/12 season with the reserve team, making 18 appareances (24 goals conceded, 5 cleans sheets, nothing to write home about.) Though he did make the bench during a Bundesliga game against Bayer Leverkusen, which made Mama and Papa Karius back in Baden very proud, probably.

So far, not so great for our little Loris, who was experiencing the kind of unfulfilling ventures into youth football that is all too familiar to 98% (citation needed) of young players. Luckily for him though, it wasn’t long before he was thrown head first into first team football.

The Mainz manager, at the time, was Thomas Tuchel. They came off the back of two uninspiring 13th place finishes with almost identical points totals, and the big Bavarian felt something needed to change. Mainz began the 13/14 season with 35 year old stalwart Heinz Müller in goal, 3 wins from the first 3 games and everything was looking good until they weren’t; they lost 4 of the next 5. Müller was ruled out with old man’s problems (lumbago) and was replaced with slightly younger old stalwart, 33 year old Christian Wetklo. A 4-1 loss to Bayern, and a red card at Augsberg later and Müller was back between the sticks, he lasted 135 minutes more before he was ruled out with what is best described as a jippy hip.

This was the chance Karius had waited for, the main man was out injured and his replacement suspended. Loris himself had just recovered from a knee injury which ruled him out for 5 games, and upon his return completed 90 minutes with a clean sheet for the reserves. A week later, Mainz are in 12th place and, at 20 years old, Karius found himself starting against Eintracht Frankfurt for his full first team debut. Frankfurt enjoyed 63% possession and managed 5 shots on target, Karius dealt with everything that was thrown at him and his team won 1-0.

For the next 23 league games, Lorius was number 1. During those 23 games, Karius conceded 31 goals (1.34 per game) and kept 9 clean sheets (39.1%). For reference, the top 3 ‘keepers in Germany that season were Neuer (34 apps, 18 conceded, 15 clean sheets. Ridiculous), Weidenfeller (30 apps, 33 conceded, 10 clean sheets) and Leno (34 apps, 41 conceded, 7 clean sheets). Karius was rated at joint 7th. He was 20. He was playing in his debut season at the senior level. He played for a team that had conceded 23 goals in their opening 11 games (2.1 goals per game).

Karius helped his team finish in 7th place, 1 point ahead of Augsberg for the final Europa League spot. The impressive campaign, as they so often do, woke up the sharks and turned the heads of Borussia Dortmund, who then turned the head of Mainz manager, Thomas Tuchel.

Now I understand that you’re probably thinking: ‘did this guy really just write a 4 year-old season review of a mid-table team in Germany? And did I really just read that?’, but bear with me. Things pick up from here for our unlikely lad.

Mainz main man-manager Martin (Schmidt) was appointed in the summer of 2014 and he didn’t hesistate to keep Karius at number 1. His first game introduced him to European football.

They began the season with a disappointing 3-2 aggregate defeat to Greek team, Asteras Tripolis in the 3rd round of Europa League qualifiers. Though, in fairness, this team managed their way through 2 more qualifying games before finishing 3rd in a tough group with Spurs, Beşiktas and Partizan Belgrade.

The next game of the season was utterly insane. A 5-5 (5-4 penalties) DFB-Pokal defeat away at 4th tier side, Chemnitzer included a Mainz equaliser in the 123rd minute from inside of their own half. Funnily enough, despite technically conceding 10 goals that night, Karius didn’t have a bad game. There wasn’t much he could do about the goals and managed to make 2 additional saves.

Mainz began their league campaign with 8 games undefeated, Karius kept 3 clean sheets (including a 2-0 win against Tuchel’s Dortmund), and they found themselves sitting pretty in 6th place. But then, as is usually the case for early season over-achievers, things went tits-up. They managed 1 win from the next 14 games and game 13 in this unenviable run, against Hertha Berlin, proved unlucky for Karius. Except it wasn’t really unlucky because he got sent off for something Liverpool supporters will be able to immediately relate to (approximately 27 seconds in to the video).

The team cracked on without him for the second Dortmund game of the season and lost 4-2, Karius was then straight back into the line-up for a 3-1 win against Frankfurt. Mainz finished the season much as they had played throughout, hovering around midtable, conceding 17 in their final 11 games (4 clean sheets).

The team managed 40 points in 2014/15, 13 less than the successful season before. But they did manage to concede 7 goals fewer, which is notable because Tuchel’s Mainz side won 7 games more than Schmidt’s. Karius was helping to turn defeats into draws.

He finished that season with 33 league appearances, 41 goals conceded (1.24 goals per game) and 11 clean sheets (33%). These stats are obviously skewed a little when I factor in that ludicrous cup game, but I won’t because it’s my article and I’ll do what I want.

The 2015/16 season is the one which many Liverpool supporters will have seen through the Karius- Best Saves compilations, and also led to the optimism we felt when we signed him.

First up for Loris this season was a solid display in the DFB-Pokal 1st round, and a 3-0 away win against EnergieCottbus. They weren’t exactly a worthy opponent but Karius made 4 solid saves to ensure a goalless start to the season. Then, in true Mainz fashion, the good start meant absolutely nothing as they were about as inconsistent during the first 10 league games as they could have been, with 4 wins and 6 losses.

They were playing a more open, expansive game and this was reflected in their results. Many defeats involved Mainz goals, and many victories involved goals against, a 3-0 home defeat to Bayern Munich being the only real clear loss during the opening third of the season. As the season went on, Mainz continued with their inconsistent insanity- 2 losses would be followed by 3 wins, Karius was instrumental with 6 saves in a famous win away at Bayern, which was then followed by a drab 0-0 at home against Darmstadt. They were all over the place. The new set-up by Schmidt’s Mainz team led to more shots on goal conceded (he averaged 4.6 shots on target faced per game, of which he saved 74%).

Surprisingly, and despite finishing 5 places better off and comfortably in European qualifying spots, they scored only 1 goal more and conceded 5 less than they had the previous season when they finished in 11th place. It’s not exactly certain that Karius himself led to the draws becoming wins, but he definitely helped. All in all, a bloody good season for Mainz, their best league finish for 5 years.

His performances during this season saw Karius voted as second best goalkeeper behind Neuer, though this vote was conducted among players, rather than fans. 235 Bundesliga players voted and, from these, 13.6% voted Karius as best ‘keeper, 10.2% less than the man who was arguably the best in the world at the time. He made some undeniably superb saves during the 2015/16 season, including 4 saved penalties (his last 5 saved penalties were against Kane, Reus, Wagner, Müller and Huntelaar; again, not remotely relevant but I wanted to include this) and he managed 9 clean sheets (26.4%), though 10 of 14 games were won having conceded at least 1 goal. He finished with 42 goals conceded from 34 games (1.23 goals per game).

On June 30th 2016, Karius joined Liverpool for £4.75m, becoming Klopp’s third signing.

Initially he was bought as number 2 to Simon Mignolet, but his performances during the pre season friendlies had the Liverpool faithful believing that he might be the man to take the number 1 jersey (I enjoyed reading the tweets sent from LFC fan accounts during July 2016 after Karius broke his hand).

He missed the first 2 games with his injury and didn’t make his debut until game 6, a 5-1 win against Hull. The goal conceded here was the only shot on target Hull managed that day, but it does indicate the problem both Karius and Mignolet faced during the 2016/17 season- defensively, Liverpool were an accident waiting to happen. Meyler scored from close range following horrible defending from a corner. In fact, 3 out of 4 of his first games were wins with a goal conceded, and each time was a cheap goal from a badly defended corner which left the ‘keeper with no chance (2-1 v Swansea and 2-1 v West Brom).

This trend continued during the 4-2 away win at Palace (Degsy’s dog’s dinner) and the 6-1 win against Watford, though this time not through corners, just general shite defensive work and individual errors. Liverpool were winning games but defending badly, and by the time they travelled to Bournemouth in December 2016, they were 2nd in the league. You might remember this game as the one where we were 2-0 up and cruising, 3-1 up and cruising and lost 4-3. It was the first time Karius made us think twice about our “what will we do without Karius?!” tweets from a few months before. But, to be honest, 3 of the 4 goals were, again, not really his fault – a penalty, a Fraser bullet from 16 yards and a terrific Cook finish from close range; the defending was horrific for every goal.

No, the goal that stood out here was the last minute winner by Nathan Aké. A long range effort was hammered into Karius’ near post, it took a bounce in front of him and he spilled it, waiting was Aké to bundle it in. Now, this is obviously an error, but watch the goal again, there is no reason for the young Dutchman to be the closest player to Karius. I counted 6 Liverpool players ball watching as the shot was fired in, no one reacted quicker to the poor save than the Bournemouth man. That, in my book, is rotten defending and an avoidable goal. Either way, this game triggered the beginning of the end for Karius during that season.

A week later, he played against West Ham and conceded twice – the first was a nice freekick from Payet that was put through a big old hole in the wall, it was low and from distance but was curling deliciously and would have been a superb save if he’d have managed it. He didn’t manage it. The second was a horrible goal all around scored by Antonio. The defending was atrocious and Karius looked hesistant to come out, leaving a fairly straight forward finish.

And that was it for young Loris in the league, 23 games out of the side later and the season was done. His run of 10 games saw Liverpool win 21 points, go from 6th place to 3rd, keep 3 clean sheets (33%) and concede 12 goals (1.2 goals per game).

 He did play in 3 FA cup games (and kept 2 clean sheets) but the less said about that short campaign the better, and he also played in both league cup semi final defeats against Southampton, making several key saves in both legs to keep the score respectable (we were horrible).

A rather unremarkable season saw us manage to sneak 4th place on the final day. All’s well that ended well, I suppose.

So on to last season – 2017/18.

Simon Mignolet was, again, first choice. After missing the Champions League qualifiers, and the first two games in the league, Karius was given a start against Arsenal at Anfield. It was a one-sided affair, Arsenal managed exactly 0 shots on target to Liverpool’s 9, Karius was tasked with gathering the odd half-chance but not much more. The only real moment of note here was when Karius took a heavy touch from a pass, and allowed Welbeck, galloping at full speed, to intercept the ball. Welbeck, though, in true Welbeck fashion Welbecked the ball straight out for a goalkick. No harm done then, but it didn’t exactly help his cause. Loris didn’t make another league appearance for 5 months, but we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, he was given his chance in the Champions League group stage.

First was the 2-2 draw at home against Sevilla. Karius did concede both times from the only 2 shots on target, though in this case, the stats aren’t doing him any favours. The first goal was a bad lapse in concentration from our favourite World Cup finalist, which allowed the ball across the 6 yard box for a grateful Ben Yedder to tap in. The second was a better goal but still too easy for Correa to find so much space in the box. Karius came out and closed the angles, as he should, but the midfielder lifted a curling effort into the far corner. A lovely finish.

Next was the 1-1 draw in Moscow. Beaten by a freekick, Karius should really have done better. It was a rocket, but it wasn’t into the corner. The most noteable game was the 5th game of the group stages, an insane 3-3 draw in Seville. You will remember this as the no-look Firmino, cruising 3-0 at half time, massive capitulation game. What the headlines don’t tell you, though, is that Karius singlehandedly prevented a Liverpool defeat. He made 2 saves that can only be described as stupendously good, both time’s diverting the ball onto the woodwork from close range, and all three goals scored left him with no chance. A good performance saw him concede 3 goals in 45 minutes.

The other 3 games in the group stages were won (‘won’ isn’t really the right word) with a 17-0 aggregate and 8 shots on target against Karius’ goal.

Before getting to the remaining Champions League fixtures, I feel like it’s worth writing about the rest of the league season because our mate Loris was pretty decent.

Between August 2017 and January ’18, Karius made a total of 3 league appearances – along with the Arsenal no-show, he played in a forgettable 0-0 with West Brom (the one where Solanke was cruely robbed of a late winner) and a 2-1 win against Leicester. In both games he didn’t have much to do. During the former match, he was tasked with claiming, collecting and punching lots of high balls synonymous with a shithouse team like the Baggies. In the other he conceded a goal from the only Leicester shot on target (a Vardy tap-in after another defensive fuck-up) in a game in which the away team offered little more than a chance for Salah to bag his 712th goal of the season. Two days later, he was out of the team again as Ragnar made Burnley cry.

Two weeks following the Estonian showing everyone why he’s a better striker than van Basten, Karius started the 4-3 against champions elect, Man City. He had a decent enough game despite conceding 3. The media narrative was that he was at fault for Sané’s equaliser late in the first half, it’s a matter for debate because I disagree – the City winger absolutely hammered it in, and while ‘keepers are always disappointed when beaten at the near post, this was a tough save to make.

Next was a result that surprised everyone except those who regularly watch Liverpool play football, a 1-0 defeat against bottom team, and relegation fodder, Swansea. 2 shots on target, 1 goal from 2 yards out following a corner, horrible game. Not much to see here.

He then played in every minute, of every game, for the remainder of the season. These 14 games following on from the Swansea debacle saw 8 clean sheets, 27 points, 8 wins, 2 defeats and another 4th place finish for the Reds. A few of the stand-out moments were of course his world class saves from long range efforts by Diamé and Bolasie, but he also prevented defeat against Tottenham with 4 solid saves (including the Kane penalty). Of course we could say that he conceded the penalty in error but I’m pretty sure that ‘keepers are coached to come out to meet the striker. Old cotton mouth Kane got a toe to the ball and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Anyway, he finished the league campaign with 19 appearances, 14 goals conceded (0.7 goals per game), 10 clean sheets (52%, the highest of any ‘keeper to play more than 5 times), and an interesting little stat of 3.2 shots on target per goal conceded. To put this into context – Lloris had 3.4 and Ederson had 3. De Gea, the absolute animal, had 5.1 shots per goal conceded (drug test, please). His 31 saves from 45 shots on target is the same percentage (68%) as Lloris, Ederson and Courtois (De Gea saved a ridiculous 80% of shots on target. Seriously…).

Lastly, finally and about fucking time-ly, we get to the last competitive action that Karius saw in the red of Liverpool – the Champions League knock-out games.

Both Porto games were clean sheets, partially due to Karius doing his job as he should in clearing loose balls and claiming crosses, but mainly because Porto were absolutely pants. The Portuguese did improve for the game at Anfield but only managed a single shot on target, which forced an excellent Karius save. He looked good, he was quick to come off of his line with a degree of confidence that is very hard to recall in light of more recent confidence shattering events.

Man City an Anfield was next and I really need not speak too much on this because it was a simply breathtaking display both in offense and defensively. City managed only 1 shot on target despite ‘enjoying’ 62% of the possession, and Karius, again, looked good. He claimed high balls excellently and generally did what he was bought to do. It was from this point, however, that things started to go a little pear-shaped.

City away saw Liverpool endure an absolute buggery during the first half. Man City scored early through no real fault of Karius, but there were two moments which certainly did him no favours – the first was a punch/save/something from a cross that landed at the feet of Bernardo Silva (the only City player in a dangerous position) if not for a goal-saving Milner block it’s 2-0, the second incident was that punch from a high ball, which I can still see clear as day, low onto Milner’s leg and straight to Sané, offside, happy days. A massive fuck up but no harm done in the end. He did make the right choice here, it was the execution though, that he ruined. City managed 4 on target, none troubled the ‘keeper bar the early goal.

So then there were only the Roma games between Liverpool and another European cup final.

Loris made a solid save in the first minute, ‘tipped’ a speculative effort from Kolarov onto the bar (not great technique, but he did prevent a corner so I suppose there’s a positive in here somewhere), and actually had a pretty solid game. Roma love a deep cross and Karius dealt with them well, one particular moment of note was him taking in a high one and getting absolutely clobbered by van Dijk; it’s a mystery how he was still breathing let alone still holding on to the ball. Soon after this, he made a good, solid save when Schick beat Robbo at the far post, and even sooner after this he had conceded twice. The first was a superb finish by Džeko. The big Bosnian was left all alone 7 yards out and waited for Karius to commit, he found a tiny gap at the near-post and belted it home, I’m not a goalkeeping coach but I watched this goal many times and couldn’t find anything that Karius did wrong here. The second was a perfect Perotta penalty to top-bins. 4 shots on target, 2 goals against.

Roma away was next and Karius has no chance with the freak first goal against, which came clean off the face of James Milner. The second Roma goal did happen because he was at fault, however. The strange thing here was, and this is quite a recurring theme for the big German, it happened because of a good save. Karius palmed away a rasping effort, only to see the ball land at the feet of Džeko again, the only Roma player in any space, inside the box, all on his own. What are the chances? Anyway, the striker made no mistake and again produced a fine finish. Nainggolan then put a rocket in off the post, which Karius didn’t even bother diving for because there really was no point, it was unsaveable. And finally was the last minute penalty. Roma had 20 shots, 8 on target, 4 goals.

We lost the game but who cared? We were off to Kiev to bring home number 6.

So, Real Madrid, Champions League final, 29 billion people watching. So what does Karius go and do? Well he has a fairly solid first half.

There was one disallowed Benzema goal which came (again with this theme) from a Karius save, but the save was superb. Ronaldo rose like an ageless salmon and planted a header on target from 5 yards. Karius reacted with shinobi-like reflexes to keep it out, Benzema was there but he’s goal-hanging and it’s rightfully ruled out. Another moment of danger came courtesy of a Liverpool mistake, Isco was put clean through and played a poor chip onto the bar. Again, I’m no ‘keeping coach but Karius did the right thing here. He made himself big, closed the space, closed the angles and made the chance as difficult as possibe. Half time, 0-0, so far so good.

The second half doesn’t need much explaining because it’s so fresh in most of our memories, we are still having PTSD therapy sessions. 3 minutes after the break, Sergio “El Diablo” Ramos clatters Loris, not a big deal, the German man with the lion’s mane shook it off. 3 more minutes later, he throws the ball into Benzema from 2 yards out and it bobbles torturedly into the goal, 1-0. Madrid’s second goal was so good it shouldn’t count, and if it does count then it should count as 2, no complaints here. Approximately 1 minute before Bale’s stupendous effort though, Karius actually produced a wonderful save to deny Benzema his second. Fast forward to the 80th minute and Madrid have their third. Bale tried one of his speculative dippers from range, Karius seemed to be behind it and was about to make a comfortable save, when he caught it with the tips of his precious German fingers and the momentum took the ball in.

 

Two horrible, horrible, horrible, errors in the biggest game he’s ever played in. 5 shots on target, 3 conceded, 2 errors leading to goals. 

Now, about this concussion. I don’t for one second suggest that he be excused for taking a wack on the head, but it does provide some context. In the months following the game, leading neurologist and concussion awareness campaigner, Chris Nowinski, gave lots of insight into this issue. I’m not going too deep into the whys and why nots, but it’s worth remembering that it did happen and it probably did make a difference. 

Errors of that magnitude, after all, aren’t synonymous with Karius. I’ve just given 9 million words, 3 worn-out keyboards, and 7 pages in evidence of this. He had, in the past, made his cock-ups, given us all squeeky bums and cost us goals, but never to the sheer, brainless extent of that Benzema goal.

So what can we make of all of this?

A goalkeeper that the scouts at Man City, one of the best academies in the world, wanted so much that they paid a quarter of a million pounds for an unknown 17 year old. A man praised and played by two of the best German managers in the game (the first gave him a leading role as a 20 year old). A man who, aged 22, gained enough votes from fellow professionals to come second behind the best player in the world (at the time) in his position. A man who, in 5 years of senior professional football, playing in the toughest, most unforgiving position, has maintained solid, impressive statistics whilst playing for two defensively erratic teams.

His record at Liverpool is excellent. This is a controversial statement because people will jump on his errors, errors that are so ridiculous and costly that they became much bigger than they are. But it’s a statement based in fact – his statistics back him, his coaching staff back him (I promised myself not to make any Achterberg jokes), his manager (our manager) backs him, and most of all, plenty of us Reds back him.

No, I haven’t forgotten Kiev, and yes, I am sure he blames himself for that result as much as many people want him to, and much more than he should.

But for me, it’s about the famous anthem and motto engrained within our club. I will support each and every player that joins and plays for Liverpool. I understand that you think him a bad player and damaging for us, preventing us from winning and holding us back, and we are all entitled to our opinions. But for me, it doesn’t matter. We back the manager, we back the staff, and we should back the fucking players.

I was so pleased to see the reception he recieved at Chester and Tranmere recently, that is what Liverpool FC is all about. The only real abuse and negativity came from Twitter, the papers (who suddenly care about friendlies), and that one knob-gobbler playing for Tranmere, who is, let’s face it, someone who would have been abusing Loris on the internet if he wasn’t playing against him.

He is our boy, whether you like it or not. Negative tweets, abuse, mockery and death threats (Jesus…) will not help him or your beloved football team. But what will help, the only thing that ever helps, is support. Songs, chants, applause. That is what lifts people and gives them the confidence to perform at the levels they’re capable of.

Let’s get our lad Loris through the storm and show everyone why we’re the best supporters in the world. Let’s show Loris that You’ll Never Walk Alone isn’t just something we put on scarves. We are Liverpool. This is the Liverpool way.

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