Is there any future for Loris Karius at Liverpool after his nightmare?
LIVERPOOL, England -- Liverpool thought they had finally solved their lingering goalkeeping issue when Loris Karius finally took control of the No. 1 spot from rival Simon Mignolet at the start of 2018.
But a nightmare performance as the German was at fault for two goals in the 3-1 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid -- albeit one tempered by the fact he suffered a concussion -- left him with a near insurmountable task. So much so that Liverpool paid a world-record transfer fee of £65 million for Roma goalkeeper Alisson.
The spotlight has been fixed on Karius as the reaction to his error in a friendly match against Tranmere earlier this month showed. So ESPN FC sought insight from the perspective of a former player, goalkeeping coach and Liverpool supporter to see if it would be possible for him to bounce back and have a career at Anfield.
The former goalkeeper's view: Playing time is key
Jurgen Klopp did what he always does: backed his player to the hilt in public. A dispirited Klopp refused to criticise Karius minutes after the final whistle in Kiev. So, shortly after Liverpool returned for preseason training this summer, it was no surprise to see the manager claim that the concussion Karius suffered in the final was "100 percent the explanation" for his two errors against Real Madrid.
"Backing from a manager makes a lot of difference," former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop tells ESPN FC. "If Klopp hadn't said that, in backing Karius 100 percent, then any possibility of him making a comeback would have gone right there and then.
"But a manager backing you in that manner, as good as it is, it's not what determines how you're going to bounce back or when you're going to bounce back."
However, Liverpool's long-term pursuit of a goalkeeper hadn't exactly been a secret. Interest in Alisson first emerged in January, with links to the Brazil international intensifying after Kiev; Karius was also dropped by Klopp partway through his first season at the club and didn't start the 2017-18 season as first choice.
Now the move for Alisson is done, that public backing has dematerialised. You don't spend a world-record fee for a goalkeeper for him to be a backup, so Karius has been demoted again. And if he does get back on the pitch this season he would still have the task of removing the sense of panic from teammates and those inside a stadium whenever called upon.
"You still have this underlying sense of guilt that you let the team, fans down," Hislop says. "At times it can be overriding. Until you're able to get back between the sticks and put in the kind of performances that can get you can in everybody's good books, you will always have that.
"The unfortunate thing of making those errors on that big of a stage is nothing makes up for it until you get back to that stage.
"Even though your teammates and fans might vocalise support for you, you can tell they have doubts -- because of their body language. You can tell by the atmosphere around you exactly how they feel, exactly how much confidence they have in you. You're aware.
"[This sense] only disappears when you can repay with a defining performance on an equal stage. Again, the trouble being was that this stage was the Champions League final."
At least the spotlight has been moved off Karius for now.
The coach's view: You don't want to make a scene in front of the group
There is no coaching manual on how to rebuild the confidence of a player who appeared broken after failing on the biggest stage in club football.
Judging from his early outings in preseason, it's clear Karius is still bearing the scars of what happened in Kiev. Therefore, a redemption story for him at Liverpool is extremely difficult to accomplish, according to Steven Hale, a UEFA Goalkeeping A Licence-holding coach who has worked at Walsall and Swindon Town.
"Every case will be different, every character will be different. It's down to knowing your goalkeeper," Hale tells ESPN FC. "For the ones where you can see things are affecting them, often you just have a very quiet chat with them -- on the side of the pitch or before or after training in private. You don't want to make a scene in front of the group.
"You've made a mistake and you've got to get back on the horse and try and put it right by playing well in the next game, the next game and the next game.
"With the Karius case though, I think it's going to be extremely difficult [to move on]. He's 25 years of age, he's at a club that have been doing really well so they're in the spotlight. At the moment perhaps it's not right for him to be there."
Not just because of Karius but also the deterioration of Reina and Mignolet, the role of Liverpool's long-serving goalkeeping coach, John Achterberg, has continually come under fire.
Achterberg moved to the first-team setup at Melwood in 2011 and remains in his post despite a number of sweeping changes at the club in that time.
"Obviously it is not good what happened [to Karius]," he told ESPN FC in Kiev back in June. "It was unlucky for him. I just tried to pick his head up and show him you have to carry on with it. It is hard to take but that is life in football.
"For everyone it is hard to take. You try to do your best and it's not a good thing to happen. I went straight to him because you know how it feels and you try to help him and pick him up again. You have to move on and try to think positive."
And Hale insists the same applies further down the football league system.
"At the top level, I think goalkeeping coaching is less about technique, more about physiological, if I'm honest with you," he says. "The lower down you go I think the goalkeepers have got more deficiencies and that's why they're playing lower down, so there's more to do not just physiologically, but technically as well.
"I was speaking to a goalkeeper in the Football League the other day about the goalkeeper-and-goalkeeping-coach relationship. For him, it was massive. It wasn't just about the coach being the best server of the ball, putting on the best sessions.
"It was about how he dealt with a goalkeeper after a mistake had happened. He wanted to know that the goalkeeping coach was in his corner backing him."
The supporter's view: He would have to be better than his best to rebuild his reputation
The reception from Liverpool fans towards Karius has been warm at every preseason game up to this point. But even before the arrival of Alisson the doubts about the German's ability to command the No. 1 jersey, however, were wholesale among a still-sore fanbase.
Liverpool have only ever lost three European Cup finals and Karius, in the eyes of large sections of the support, is held directly responsible for one of them. It made it an extremely uncomfortable scenario for many.
Applause and gestures of goodwill were there, but focused eyes in the stands have peered over everything Karius has done since. It wasn't missed when the ball went through his legs and into the net during a simple exercise in the warmup of the Chester FC game, Liverpool's first friendly of the summer. A harmless mistake, some might say. But that level of attention would be the case for months, even years, now.
Opposing fans, players and management would have been licking their lips, too. After all, Steve Cook revealed that Bournemouth were told to target Karius before their 4-3 win in December 2016.
"I think there's something in the fact that Liverpool could be absolutely brilliant in the next five seasons and they still might not make a Champions League final. Full stop," Neil Atkinson, host of The Anfield Wrap podcast, tells ESPN FC. "It almost becomes a career-defining moment and it's really difficult to escape that, especially while still at Liverpool.
"That's something that's going to prey on his mind, his teammates' minds and the supporters' minds.
"I think there's just something that you can't shift beyond, which is that responsibility [from the final]. There's a load of context for that responsibility, and I take everything that's been said about the concussion at face value. But he was a good 'keeper for the team in the second half of last season, but I don't think he was necessarily a good goalkeeper in terms of just being a goalkeeper."
In just his second appearance since the ill-fated final, Karius spilt a free kick at Tranmere Rovers that directly led to a goal. Before that moment, he was sarcastically cheered by Liverpool fans when he successfully claimed a cross.
Klopp said after Tranmere that the spotlight would be firmly fixated on his goalkeeper until he delivered a "few fantastic games." Such a timescale was ambitious to say the least. A decent run of form since the turn of the year was instantly wiped out on May 26, leaving Karius virtually in debt with Liverpool fans' support.
"You've got to be able to do six months that are pretty much unimpeachable -- and he hasn't got that in him," Atkinson adds. "He's now got to be better than his best to rebuild his reputation and I think that's really hard.
"He was part of the run that got Liverpool to the Champions League final, so he should be praised for that. But you can't become the goalkeeper that you're not.
"He is going to make mistakes because all goalkeepers make mistakes. And he's going to make mistakes because he's the sort of goalkeeper who does make mistakes. I don't think Karius is good enough for Klopp to gamble his personal stock on. That's where we might be and I think that's really awkward and unpleasant."
The preseason games were an indicator of what might happen if Karius stayed as Liverpool's starter between the sticks. To Liverpool, it's clearly a price they weren't willing to pay. They were, however, willing to splash £65m to correct the situation.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.