After a year in which Virgil van Dijk was unstoppable, his Liverpool defensive partner Joel Matip has begun to step into the limelight.
As Liverpool approached the 2019-20 season aiming to go one better than last season’s second-place Premier League finish, we thought we knew what was going to happen.
Joe Gomez had started the Community Shield and the Premier League curtain-raiser and, having starting just once following his return from injury in April, the England international was ready to step up and cement his place as a starting centre-back alongside Virgil van Dijk. However, none of us accounted for Joel Matip rising to the challenge and then above and beyond.
Matip has been named as the Premier League’s Player of the Month for September, a period in which Liverpool won three games out of three in the league and conceded just twice.
Being the poorer relation in a defence containing Van Dijk, as the former Cameroon international was last season, is hardly damning of a player. After all, the Dutch defender could very realistically end the year with a Ballon d’Or to add to his collection.
Yet there were times last season where onlookers felt Matip was seeing his level dragged upward by his partner. As soon as Van Dijk even dropped five per cent, the impact would be felt by the man alongside him. How wrong we were.
Our first glimpse of Joel Matip 2.0 came with his headed goal against Arsenal. Sure, a defender finding the net is no evidence of his ability at the other end of the pitch, but the forcefulness and confidence evoked Vincent Kompany’s winner in the Manchester derby back in 2012.
Normally, when a player is wise enough to sense the gravity of a goal, he struggles to marry that with the single-mindedness to put the chance away. Not always, though.
“In a world of big transfer fees, signing a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible, that was maybe one of the best pieces of business we did in the last years,” Jürgen Klopp said of the defender, who became one of his first Reds arrivals when he signed a pre-contract agreement in 2016 and joined from Schalke that summer.
Like Gomez, his current rival for a starting spot, he made his top-flight debut as an 18-year-old, and Liverpool’s manager pointed to this fact when highlighting Matip’s “incredible talent”.
And so, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to see him step up to the plate as Van Dijk drops from superhuman to merely extremely good.
Matip’s ability with his feet has long been recognised, and there aren’t too many who look as elegant as him when carrying the ball forward, but – as with many defenders with his level of calm – there can be a sense of said calm playing into a broader lack of urgency.
This has been put to bed with moments like his tackle on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who seemed all alone and destined to calmly beat Adrián, only for Matip to appear out of nowhere and prevent him even getting a shot away.
In reality, though, it only looks so striking because it’s one of the rare scenarios where he wasn’t already in the right place. Of course, you only need to look at the number and quality of chances conceded this season to see how has stepped up. Sometimes the interventions which seem boring are a bigger sign of quality than their more dramatic counterparts.
When the season began, Joel Matip won’t have been top of most people’s lists in a discussion of which player will make the biggest difference to the title race.
Some will have looked at Liverpool’s returning £53million Naby Keita or Manchester City’s new recruit Rodri, while others might – within reason – have anticipated Mohamed Salah having the capacity to make the biggest difference by reproducing his goalscoring exploits of 2017-18.
Few would have expected Matip to tip the scales. However, as Liverpool go into the international break with an eight-point lead over their nearest rivals, having already ticked Arsenal and Chelsea off the to-do list, he has played as big a part as anyone else.