Anfield had a few eyebrows raised on Saturday when the team sheets were released, and Joël Matip had retaken his spot beside Virgil van Dijk in Liverpool’s backline. Joe Gomez started on the bench as Arsenal came calling, and Matip, who did an admiral job last season, reminded Liverpool fans why they had grown so fond of him.
Matip went on to score Liverpool’s first goal with a perfect header from one of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner. He also did an excellent job in defence, allowing Arsenal very few chances.
Jürgen Klopp felt the same way, and after the match, he went out of the way to praise Matip’s performance.
“It was all around a really good performance and Joel, for sure it was his best game of the season,” Klopp said.
“People spoke about our defending. We work on our defending but not in the way people probably expected. It’s not about the last line; it’s a common thing, defending in the Premier League doesn’t work if you talk to [each individual player] and tell him, ‘We have to do this and that differently.”
In a backline with Virgil Van Dijk as one of the personnel, of course it’s safe to say the Dutchman will always dominate headlines.
But a player who has seen his all round game silently improve is 28-year-old Joel Matip. String after string of impressive performances means Klopp is ready to hand the Cameroonian a new contract amidst fears he could leave the club in January.
The 28-year-old’s current contract expires next summer, having joined Liverpool in the summer of 2016.
Taking a look at his upgrade, his rise to the top was a phenomenal one as well.
Although relatively quiet and unassuming in character, Matip has emerged as a genuine unsung hero of this remarkable Liverpool side and while his name is rarely ever mentioned among the finest defenders in the Premier League, he absolutely deserves to be in that conversation.
Yet you only have to rewind to this time last season whereby Matip was only fourth in Jürgen Klopp’s centre back pecking order, with Joe Gomez excelling as the established first choice partner for Van Dijk, while Dejan Lovren was favoured as Klopp’s go-to third man in the heart of the defence.
By December, Matip had started only one Premier League game – the 3-0 home win against Southampton, in which he scored – while his only other starts came in the League Cup and Champions League defeats to Chelsea and Red Star. It took a broken leg for Gomez to give Matip his chance to step up, and since then he has seized the opportunity and never once looked back.
Although persistent injury troubles arguably hindered him from putting together a consistent run of form earlier in his Liverpool career, the contrast in Matip’s performances between now and when he first arrived from FC Schalke 04 in 2016 is stark.
While he was once frequently criticised for his lack of aggression and physicality despite his towering 6ft 5in frame, Matip’s aerial duel success rate has increased significantly from 61% in his debut season to 70% in 2018/19.
Now, though, he asserts himself in a way befitting of a player of his stature, playing with the authority of a man who has been a key component in helping Liverpool achieve 97 points in the Premier League and becoming European Champions. His reading of the game is undoubtedly of an elite level, but Matip is also so much more than a pure defender.
It is rare to have a centre back – especially of his size – so adept at stepping out of defence and striding through the midfield to start attacking moves of his own accord.
Occasionally he does lose the ball and play overly risky passes, but on the whole Matip’s decisive marauding runs and crisp distribution contributes significantly to Liverpool’s buildup play.
A new-and-improved deal would be richly deserved for Matip, who has been quite brilliant in recent months.
Having been a divisive figure, the centre-back shone alongside Virgil van Dijk during the Reds’ Champions League run, earning a new legion of admirers.
He is now deservedly ahead of Joe Gomez in the pecking order, performing at the peak of his powers.
A renewed contract for the 28-year-old will be a good deal for both the player and the club.
It’s hard to think of an individual in the Premier League who has gone up a bigger notch in 2019.