Since the start of the 2018/19 season, no club ever-present in the Premier League has conceded fewer goals than Liverpool’s 27.
That doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, right? Well, it’s important to remember that before Virgil van Dijk arrived in January 2018, Liverpool effectively lost titles on account of their leaky backline. The Dutchman was huge in turning the Reds’ defensive fortunes around, and he quite rightly receives a ton of credit for it.
But defences certainly aren’t made by one player and partnerships aren’t made by one centre-back.
Van Dijk has had a multitude of players lining up alongside him since the start of last season: Englishman Joe Gomez is showing all the signs of being an elite centre-back and Dejan Lovren, well, he has his moments.
But throughout all the injuries and/or loss of form to those two, one man has stood firm: Joel Matip.
Signed on a free transfer in 2016, Matip was never going to be and never has been the most fashionable player in Jurgen Klopp’s squad. Why would he be? He didn’t break the transfer record for a defender and isn’t a household name for the Uefa Nations League finalists and footballing powerhouse that is the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, Matip has partnered Van Dijk in all but six matches across all competitions since January 19 and his form during that time has been close to flawless.
In the Premier League alone, the Cameroon international ranks second at Liverpool in – hold your breath – aerial duels won (77), tackles (43), blocks (9), clearances (96), headed clearances (58) and duels won (142). For good measure, he outperforms all of his team-mates in interceptions (35) during that time.
Consistent and reliable, Klopp certainly knows the value of Matip now, recently naming him as “one of the best pieces of business” he’s ever done, despite being responsible for the £75m signing of Van Dijk, the £66.8m purchase of Alisson and the arrivals of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
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“In a world of big transfer fees, to sign a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible,” said Klopp.
“It was maybe one of the best pieces of business we did in the last few years.”
Maybe it’s Matip’s tall, spindly frame which makes him go under the radar. When the 28-year-old is on the ball, he doesn’t exactly look comfortable but looks can be deceiving – Matip ranks third among Liverpool players for completed passes in the Premier League (1,176) since that aforementioned January date and has out-dribbled the much more authoritative-looking Van Dijk five to three during that time.
These stats haven’t gone unnoticed by Klopp, who admits he’s been an admirer of Matip during their days on opposite sides of the Revierderby in Germany and has championed his development on the ball since then.
“Joel was always an incredible talent. He played as an 18-year-old boy for Schalke in the Bundesliga,” added Klopp.
“It’s a strong league and he played there, and was always a standout player, a fixed point in defence.
“Yes, he lacked a little bit of consistency – that can happen, especially with his physical stature.
“He doesn’t always look sensational when he moves. But he grew and developed.
“Joel is in a really good moment and long may it continue.”
Matip’s most recent highlight was in the final quarter of Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Sure, he was targeted and taken to task by Tammy Abraham and, during the first half, struggled to keep pace with the English youngster.
But as should be the case in any successful defence, he was helped out by the likes of Van Dijk, as well as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson covering from full-back.
In the second half, though, Matip really made himself count. Frank Lampard’s men rallied and put Liverpool under immense pressure but in front of every shot, underneath every header and on the end of every tackle was Matip.
Jamie Carragher was quick to recognise this in his coverage for Sky Sports, even naming Matip as Man of the Match.
“I’m actually going to go for this man, Joel Matip. It’s for his second-half performance,” he said.
“Normally Virgil van Dijk gets all the plaudits but certainly in the last 10-15 minutes he won some huge headers for Liverpool and defended set-pieces.”
Given their 100 per cent record in the Premier League so far, it’s quite obvious that Liverpool have a multitude of weapons and shields at their disposal – their fearsome front three, the lung-busting efforts of Robertson and sheer quality of delivery from Alexander-Arnold.
But among all those, Matip stands tall as one of Klopp’s, no, the Premier League’s most overlooked masterstrokes of recent times.