A collective shudder went through Liverpool’s fan base in December, as news broke that Joe Gomez was ruled out for another considerable spell in his fledgling career. The England international had forged a cast iron partnership with Virgil Van Dijk and another injury was viewed as a genuine blow to the Red’s ambitions.
With not even a murmur of intent by the club to opt into the January window, it appeared Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool were content to rely on the cover already in place.
Even with Dejan Lovren’s hamstring issues, the German remained unflinchingly stubborn; no reinforcements were on route and faith would be placed firmly on Joel Matip to fill the void.
At the time, the unfashionable former Cameroon international was seen, at best, in a mixed light by Liverpool fans. Four months on though and the centre-half has done much to repay that faith shown in him by Klopp. His transformation in form has seen him become a real unsung hero in the Anfield club’s title chase.
The former Schalke man had not exactly blazed a trail since his arrival at Anfield in 2016. Via a combination of rotten luck with injuries and erratic form, Matip had arrived into his third season at the club as a genuine divisive figure with his future up in the air.
There were plenty who had seen enough positives from the towering defender. They were happy with his excellent composure on the ball and an unflustered approach to marshaling the men he was charged to contain.
However, there was also a vociferous faction who despaired at Matip’s lack of aerial conviction, strength and positional vulnerability.
A shocking injury record didn’t help either. A grand total of 40 games have been missed by Matip in his three seasons at Liverpool, with many beginning to question whether he could be genuinely relied upon for the duration of a season.
Part of the problem
For all of those who tried to see the positives in Matip, it was hard to deny that he had not exactly revamped Liverpool’s defence. The Cameroonian was first choice in his maiden season, 2016-17, which saw Liverpool ship an uncomfortable 42 goals, with only Arsenal conceding more in the top six.
It was this poor defensive record which so often proved to be Liverpool’s undoing and threatened to derail their progression back into the top four of the Premier League. Guilty or not, Matip was seen as part of the problem, rather than the solution.
An unconvincing partnership with Dejan Lovren served only to exacerbate supporter’s frustration. Neither were natural leaders and neither seemed up to the task of organizing the troops on the field. Set pieces were a particular problem, and many pointed to Matip’s lack of quality in the air as feeding into this weakness.
Going into 2018-19 and Matip’s prospects looked very bleak indeed. Virgil Van Dijk had stormed into the club and rebooted the back line. A staggering and rapid transformation took place and the previously shoddy Dejan Lovren was a man reborn at the back, alongside the Dutchman.
The Croatian elbowed his way past Matip in the pecking order as Liverpool romped to the Champions League final. Joe Gomez then emerged from injury in the summer to usurp Lovren, leaving Matip, firmly, as fourth choice and out of the picture.
Fast forward eight months and the situation has been completely reversed for Liverpool’s number 32. Against Cardiff last weekend he put in a man of the match shift, displaying real confidence as he galloped out of the defence to help break the lines and assist his midfield colleagues with marauding runs.
Such a measured display is a sure sign of a player returning to full confidence. Yes, the common factor in the improvement of all of Liverpool’s defensive players is Virgil Van Dijk’s assured, world-class presence at the back, but credit must go to Matip for grabbing this opportunity with both hands.
A tackle success rate of 78.6% is second only to Van Dijk, as are his interceptions at 1.8 per 90 minutes. This serves only to reinforce the view that Matip is a defender reading the game well and showing more guile than he has ever done in a red shit.
His transformation in form has arguably salvaged his career at Anfield for the immediate future at least. For now though, Liverpool fans are starting to acknowledge one of the unsung heroes in their title charge this season.