Adrian was the unlikely hero for Liverpool as they beat Chelsea in a penalty shootout to win the European Super Cup. Adam Bate reflects on the goalkeeper’s dramatic start and examines the evidence that suggests he might prove an able deputy for Alisson…
What were the odds? Simon Mignolet sat on the bench for 37 Premier League games in a row last season – Loris Karius doing the job on the opening weekend – and he didn’t get a sniff of action. Adrian turned up after spending much of the previous month training with sixth-tier Spanish side Union Deportiva Pilas and now he is a European Super Cup winner.
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More than that, he was the hero in Istanbul.
Adrian was unfortunate enough to concede a penalty in extra-time – adjudged to have caught Tammy Abraham, although some replays suggested otherwise. But he made up for it in the shootout by saving the final penalty from the same player to win the trophy for Liverpool in the biggest game of his career. What a week it has been for the Spaniard.
The calf injury that Alisson suffered against Norwich led to Adrian’s Premier League debut on Friday but the result was already secure with Liverpool three goals up. The shot from Teemu Pukki that he let creep in was of little consequence. Chelsea in Istanbul was a bigger test and he could have been forgiven for feeling self-conscious given the eyes on him.
Pedro beat him early on but it came back off the frame of the goal. Olivier Giroud scored but there was little that he could do with that one either. Adrian did come off his line well to smother the ball at the feet of Mateo Kovacic but he was a little rash in attempting to do the same later in the evening and allowing Abraham the opportunity to tumble to the ground.
Of course, it is the penalty he saved that will be remembered. Either goalkeeper could have been the star of the show in that shootout but while Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper of them all, let two penalties squirm past him into the corner of the net, the free-transfer signing managed to get a strong boot to Abraham’s effort and end the contest.
The subsequent joy in the faces of his new team-mates and manager was obvious. A hug from Jurgen Klopp. A hug from everyone. Adrian was held aloft. The unlikeliest of heroes. If he needed an injection of confidence as he fills in for Alisson in the days and weeks to come then he could hardly have wished for more than this. How can he possibly top this?
Make no mistake, this was better than Liverpool had any right to expect of someone who conceded four goals against AFC Wimbledon on his previous start in the FA Cup back in January. Rustiness was Klopp’s concern. “In the short term, the problem is that he just came here with no club when we signed him,” said the Liverpool boss beforehand.
Nobody expects him to be Alisson – the man described by Virgil van Dijk on the eve of this game as “maybe the best goalkeeper in the world right now” – but Liverpool are hoping that Adrian doesn’t undermine their ambitions. Given Manchester City’s record over the past two seasons, it is obvious to everyone that Klopp’s side have very little margin for error.
The good news is that swapping Mignolet for Adrian might prove astute. Trading a Belgium international, Liverpool’s one-time first-choice goalkeeper with over 200 appearances for the club to his name, for an uncapped 32-year-old Spaniard who spent last season sitting it out at West Ham might not seem an upgrade. But delve a bit deeper and it just might be.
The statistics are encouraging. Analysis of the shots on target that goalkeepers face, based on the type and their location, allows us to calculate the expected number of goals that the average keeper is likely to concede. In each of Mignolet’s five seasons in the Liverpool goal, he conceded more goals than would have been expected given the quality of those shots.
In contrast, Adrian’s record at West Ham was much more positive. In his first season with the club, he conceded six goals fewer than expected. In the second season, it was eight. He outperformed expectations in four of the five seasons, conceding 16 goals fewer than the shots he faced would suggest, compared to Mignolet who conceded over 20 goals more.
Adrian himself has admitted that he is coming off the back of one of the worst seasons of his career having been unable to get a look in ahead of Lukasz Fabianski and he has readily acknowledged that he was not anticipating that he would earn a contract at a club like Liverpool. But this sort of humility should not be mistaken for a lack of confidence.
After all, this is a goalkeeper who once dispatched his penalty in a shootout against Everton to win an FA Cup tie for West Ham. The hope is that he has the mentality to seize this chance too. “He’s a really, really good goalie and a really good person,” said Klopp. “We have seen how good he can be,” added Van Dijk. “He will definitely do the job.”
Adrian might need to keep doing that job for a little longer yet. There are away trips to Southampton and Burnley either side of an Anfield showdown with Arsenal still to come this month. Even Alisson did not keep a clean sheet in any of those fixtures last season. Adrian’s best will be badly needed – but what a platform this has given him.