Two games. Two wins. Liverpool fans could not have asked for a better start to the season. Despite scoring six goals across the two games, there is a general sense that Liverpool’s attackers aren’t quite at full throttle with Liverpool’s defence leaving the bigger impression on fans instead. While Virgil van Dijk is deservedly being applauded for the calmness, leadership and aerial dominance he brings to the back-line, young defender Joe Gomez has gone somewhat under the radar with his performances alongside him.
Since joining Liverpool in the summer of 2015, Joe Gomez has become something of a problem-solver for Liverpool’s managers. Signed from Charlton Athletic as a centre-back, the then-18-year-old found himself in the Liverpool first-team as a left-back under Brendan Rodgers. Left-back had long been a problem position for the Reds and Gomez appeared to be a short-term solution up until injury curtailed his progress that season and the next.
Gomez only regained enough fitness for regular playing time at the start of last season, where he again found himself being asked to play at full-back instead of his preferred centre-back position. With Nathaniel Clyne out injured, Gomez provided Trent Alexander-Arnold with competition and cover at right-back, impressing massively in this position and forcing himself into the England setup in the process, being unlucky to miss the World Cup squad through injury.
Now, with Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip struggling with injuries and Ragnar Klavan being sold in a £2 million deal to Cagliari, Gomez has been given the chance to partner Virgil van Dijk in the heart of Liverpool’s defence. Indeed, following his displays against West Ham and Crystal Palace, it seems that Gomez is now in possession of the shirt and will remain so despite Matip returning to fitness and Lovren being perceived as first-choice before the season began.
Why could Gomez be Van Dijk’s perfect partner?
Gomez has always been destined to play at centre-back. Standing at 6ft 2inches and having a muscular frame, Gomez’s stature lends itself more to the heart of defence than full-back, with it being a big help in aerial duels. However, last season Gomez only won 51.56% of his aerial duels in the Premier League, something which is particularly concerning when you consider that Gomez played at right-back where he often faced wingers who were shorter and less muscular than himself. For comparison, Van Dijk won 72% of his aerial duels for Liverpool last season, with Matip winning 72.73% and Lovren 63.82%.
However, it is unlikely that the low proportion of aerial duels Gomez won last season will overly worry Jurgen Klopp when selecting Gomez as a centre-back because of two reasons. The first is that half the skill of winning an aerial duel comes from correct body positioning, something which Gomez will develop over the course of his career as his levels of experience at centre-back increase.
The second is that Van Dijk’s instinct is to defend on the front-foot meaning that he will often break the defensive line and challenge the opposition striker for a header. This will result in the number of aerial duels for Gomez to fall, with his main duty being to anticipate the ball should Van Dijk lose the aerial battle. This is something that Gomez should be capable of doing, having shown great speed of mind and feet while playing at full-back, while also showing a great adaptability when asked to carry out slightly different roles. Indeed, Gomez is the only Liverpool centre-back who does not prefer to defend on the front-foot meaning he could be a better foil for Van Dijk than any of the previously used partners.
In comparison to other teams, it is imperative that a Liverpool centre-back is comfortable on the ball. If you watch Van Dijk play, you can see how, after winning the ball, he straight away looks to play the ball out either short or to break the opposition lines, this has seen him achieve a 90% pass success rate in a Liverpool shirt, with an average pass length of 21.50 metres. In comparison, Gomez achieved a pass completion rate of 85% of average distance 18.82 metres last season.
While behind his partner in this sense, these numbers are misleading as last season, Gomez would have been playing a significant proportion of passes around the opposition box, fulfilling the attacking nature of Liverpool’s full-backs. This means that he would have been passing in a more congested area where more players will be cutting out passing lines and are better skilled at doing this by virtue of their roles in the team. Gomez’s passing statistics stack up well in comparison to other full-backs last season and gives me confidence that he will have statistics to rival Van Dijk’s in this department over the course of this season.
Prior to the season starting, Klopp alluded to Gomez’s pre-season performances at centre-back being a key factor in him not being interested in signing another centre-back for this team. Some saw this as an unnecessary risk, particularly as Liverpool were showing massive ambition in their signings over the summer, with the aim to reach the next level. However, the risk could prove wise. Having spent £75 million on Van Dijk in January, Liverpool know that the cost of a top-class centre-back is ridiculously high, further evidenced by Leicester reportedly wanting a similar fee for Harry Maguire.
In Gomez, Liverpool already have a player who has been capped 3 times by England with each appearance being in the centre of defence, despite rarely playing there for Liverpool. This shows that Gomez is already playing at a level befitting of international football and gives a clear indication that with regular game time, he could become a top-quality centre-back that would command a fee close too, if not more than Van Dijk’s. Clearly, Gomez still needs to improve if he is to reach the heights that many think he will but given a little bit of time and some quick adaptation on his part, Gomez could save Liverpool millions and become a key figure in Liverpool’s defence for years to come.