Marking his Liverpool debut with an excellent performance at Bournemouth on Sunday, Danny Ward presented himself as a long-term option for Jurgen Klopp.
After a gruelling 90 minutes at home to Borussia Dortmund on Thursday night, Klopp made 10 changes to his starting lineup as the Reds travelled to Bournemouth’s Dean Court.
Few will have expected the German to replace his first-choice goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, however, especially as Klopp had said the week before that the Welshman would have to wait for his debut.
But with Ward named as Liverpool’s No. 1 on the south coast, interest sparked up within the travelling Kop; this was the first time the Wales international had appeared for the Reds, after returning to Merseyside in January, following a successful loan spell with Aberdeen.
Klopp can be encouraged by the strong, comprehensive display of his much-changed side, with the likes of Connor Randall and Sheyi Ojo producing positive performances, but it was the commanding Ward that was most intriguing.
In 90 minutes at Dean Court, the 22-year-old hinted at a bright future between the sticks for Klopp’s side.
Danny Ward vs. Bournemouth
In fielding Ward behind a new-look back four of Randall, Kolo Toure, Lucas Leiva and Brad Smith, Klopp reneged on his previous assertion that “if we have to change the [back four]…it doesn’t make too much sense that you change your goalkeeper too.”
But with the German admitting after the game that “with the same lineup [as against Dortmund] we’d have absolutely no chance,” this may have been a necessary evil.
Setting his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Klopp looked to throw bodies forward and overwhelm Eddie Howe’s back line, but with the Cherries employing a direct approach in attack, Ward was soon called into action.
With Josh King’s pace allowing the Norwegian to get in behind Lucas in the right channel, Bournemouth crafted a number of opportunities in the first half.
But when Bournemouth sent long passes over the Liverpool defence, Ward was on hand to collect, with the sight of a Reds goalkeeper charging to the edge of his penalty area to snuff out an attacking move a welcoming one.
With Tommy Elphick nodding an effort towards goal in the opening 20 minutes, Ward was there to make the catch, and immediately drilled a pass into the Bournemouth half for Ojo to chase.
It was this confidence, and front-footed goalkeeping play, that hallmarked Ward’s afternoon.
He covered his near post well, denying King on one occasion and covering for a Mamadou Sakho error on another, while he also made two great stops on the stretch, most notably to keep a Steve Cook header out.
A downfall for many Premier League goalkeepers, Ward also held an authority over his penalty area, coming out to claims crosses and bellowing at his more experienced defensive colleagues.
Conceding King’s late strike at his far post, Ward will feel aggrieved not to have kept a clean sheet, but on his debut at Dean Court the goalkeeper was hugely impressive.
It would be naive to suggest that, after one strong showing against a comfortable Bournemouth side, Ward should usurp Mignolet as Klopp’s first-choice goalkeeper immediately.
But, studying the impact the Welshman had on Liverpool’s performance—both in defence and moving into attack—he may represent a more suitable option for the long term.
Most notably, Ward’s distribution served as a more prominent outlet for the Reds, eschewing the more measured, short passing game that is typically employed throughout the Liverpool back line in favour of a direct approach.
Following Toure’s lead, Ward looked to bypass the midfield and aim long balls towards the pacy Ojo and Daniel Sturridge.
More often that not, Ward sprayed his passes out early, collecting the ball and prompting attacking moves quickly; a show of initiative not far removed from Liverpool’s last great No. 1, Pepe Reina.
Compared to Mignolet’s output over the course of the season, there was a distinct change in approach from Ward.
Against Bournemouth, Ward’s passes covered an average of 52 metres, while Mignolet’s average distance in the league is 39 metres; though, naturally, Ward completed fewer of his attempted passes, with 36 percent to Mignolet’s season’s average of 65 percent—a byproduct of the Belgian’s shorter passing style.
Most useful in portraying Ward’s efficiency came in his passing when kicking the ball out from his hands, with the goalkeeper completing 40 percent of his attempts.
Only six Premier League goalkeepers have averaged a higher passing accuracy when attempting this Reina staple, with Mignolet completing just 17 percent, the worst of any goalkeeper to make over one league appearance this season.
That Ward paired this with a front-footed command of his penalty area, a strong organisational presence behind his back four and the reflexes to deny the likes of King and Junior Stanislas is more than enough to suggest he should be given more opportunities by Klopp.
Ward in 2015/16
While an outing in the pleasant seaside surroundings of Boscombe is far from a baptism of fire, giving a good account of himself against Bournemouth should stand Ward in good stead as Klopp plots for the future.
The presence of Ward between the sticks at Dean Court could be considered significant, with his manager perhaps privately turning his focus to the Europa League.
A win over Howe’s Cherries leaves Liverpool eighth in the Premier League table, and while fourth-placed Arsenal dropped points on Sunday afternoon, and fifth-placed Man United remain within reach due to the Reds’ game in hand, hopes of a top-four finish seem slim.
Mignolet, established as Liverpool’s first choice and in positive form in recent weeks, should keep his place against Villarreal at the end of April.
But with clashes against the likes of Newcastle United and Swansea City to come in the league, Ward could find an opening.
With little to play for in the league in 2015/16, Klopp should utilise this final, six-game stretch to plan for the future, and as Ward proved on Sunday, he should play a big part in this.
In the long term, Ward can be an upgrade on Mignolet: a goalkeeper with confidence in his abilities, and an unerring resolve to carry out his duties.
Speaking after the game, Ward attested that “surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous. At the end of the day I get paid to keep the ball out of the back of the net and help the team.”
“It’s a game of football, regardless of who you are playing for,” he later added. “Obviously, it’s special playing for Liverpool but your job remains the same.”
This should be enough to convince Klopp, and Liverpool supporters should hope to see more of Ward before the season’s end.