How Joel Matip has established himself as Virgil Van Dijk’s perfect defensive partner at Liverpool

Joel Matip has been a mainstay of Liverpool’s defence this season (Picture: Getty)

While Pep Guardiola is renowned for his weekly tactical tinkering, Jurgen Klopp is more consistent when it comes to his team selections.

During Liverpool’s record-breaking 2018-19 Premier League campaign, seven players started 31 games or more and this term a dozen players have been involved in at least six of the club’s opening seven league matches.

Ask any Liverpool fan to predict what team Klopp is likely to select ahead of a match and they will reel off eight or nine virtually guaranteed starters. The front three picks itself, Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson, fitness permitting, are nailed-on regulars, the full-backs have made themselves undroppable and Georginio Wijnaldum is a mainstay in midfield.

Of Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 system, the only two positions likely to cause any debate are who partners Van Dijk in the middle of the back four and which of three or four options slots into central midfield. Since January, though, the central defensive conundrum has been easier to solve thanks to Joel Matip’s imperious form.

Matip started last season very much fourth in line in Klopp’s defensive pecking order but he has usurped Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren since the turn of the year. Liverpool’s uncharacteristically shoddy defending against RB Salzburg on Wednesday night in Matip’s absence highlighted just how important he has become.

Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk have struck up an excellent understanding in Liverpool’s defence (Picture: Getty)

It is not often you see Liverpool’s defence look so unconvincing. All three of Salzburg’s goals were well-worked and well-taken, but Klopp won’t have been impressed with how his side – collectively and individually – defended for any of them.

Van Dijk was twisted inside and out by Hwang Hee-Chan for the first, Gomez rashly conceded a free-kick and was then slow to get back into position for the impressive Takumi Minamino’s second and the England international was culpable for the third too, allowing Europe’s most prolific teenage striker Erling Braut Haaland to ghost in behind him for a tap-in.

Liverpool’s defensive display was a far cry from the masterclass at Brammall Lane just a few days before. It was perhaps the most flustered the usually unflappable Van Dijk has been since he made that £75m move from Southampton 21 months ago, which is notable given Matip wasn’t alongside him.

Van Dijk acknowledged that he and Gomez had not been at their best, telling the Athletic: ‘It was good to be back alongside Joe. It had been a while since we played together so it’s bound to take some time again.’

The Dutchman added: ‘They caused us some problems but the goals could have been avoided.’

Partnerships are important all over the pitch but no more so than in central defence. It is why centre-backs are generally the least rotated outfield players as forging a telepathic understanding with one another takes time and plenty of work on the training ground.

Since January 2018, Liverpool’s central defence has been built around the formidable presence of Van Dijk, but his defensive partners have changed every six months or so. Initially, Lovren was favoured alongside him, then it was Gomez and now it seems to be Matip.

Stephen Warnock on Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk’s partnership

The way he reads the game, he never really gets drawn into a foot race down the line. He’s always positionally very shrewd. Chris [Sutton] talked about it with the goal, where Van Dijk found himself as the right centre back, you don’t often find that when he plays alongside Matip. Matip doesn’t get dragged out into the full-back position much. Defensively they are more sound.

In the opening weeks of 2018-19, Matip barely featured, other than as a late-match closer. The defender’s first three appearances in 2018-19 all came as an 89th-minute substitute during nervy, one-goal margin victories against Brighton, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

After starting one Premier League match and one Carabao Cup game by the beginning of November, Matip was named in Liverpool’s heavily-rotated starting XI for the Champions League game against Red Star Belgrade in a raucous atmosphere. Liverpool surprisingly lost 2-0 and Matip had to wait a month for his next start against Burnley.

It was in that game that his fortunes changed for the better. Gomez, selected at right-back ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold, presumably to add more height to Liverpool’s defence in a bid to counteract Burnley’s aerial threat, had to be taken off 23 minutes into the game after suffering a broken leg, somewhat ironically sustained in the attacking third of the pitch.

That injury kept Gomez out of action for four months exactly, a period of time covering 23 Liverpool matches. Of those games, Matip featured in 15 and by the time Gomez had returned, he couldn’t force his way back into the side. As is so often the case, an injury opened up a slot in the team and the replacement took full advantage.

Premier League minutes for Liverpool defenders (2019-20)

Virgil Van Dijk630Joel Matip540Joe Gomez91Dejan Lovren

As Liverpool relentlessly racked up the victories in the Premier League and Champions League during the Spring, Van Dijk was increasingly talked up as a potential Ballon d’Or winner, such was his influence on those around him.

Praise was merited, of course, but there was precious little spoken of Matip’s importance during the final few weeks of the campaign. Van Dijk was named man of the match in the 2-0 Champions League final win over Spurs, but Matip was at least the equal to the Dutchman on the night, if not the fractionally better performer.

Speaking in the summer, Klopp sought to highlight Matip’s undervalued influence, saying: ‘Not a lot of people spoke about the impact Joel Matip had in the last third of the season. I don’t see a lot of centre-backs in the world who are better in that period, 100 per cent, pretty much without any mistakes.’

Matip has continued where he left off last season, starting in eight of Liverpool’s 12 matches in all competitions. Klopp’s current first-choice central defensive partnership continues to blossom, Matip winning more tackles and averaging a higher number of interceptions, with Van Dijk left to sweep up and play the pretty passes.

It is the quintessential central defensive pairing, Van Dijk is the ball-playing ‘Rolls Royce’ type and Matip is the one who gets through most of the dirty work. Gomez is a naturally more talented footballer than Matip but he can have no qualms with Klopp’s current preference.

Joe Gomez has had to be patient so far this season (Picture: Getty)

‘Credit to [Van Dijk and Matip] they are doing unbelievably well, so as I say, I understand but obviously it is frustrating for me at the same time. It is what it is, I’ve got to keep working hard and keep pushing on,’ Gomez said last week.

Ironically, an injury to Matip ahead of Liverpool’s Champions League tie against Red Bull Salzburg has left the door slightly ajar for Gomez to reclaim the place that he lost during that wintery evening at Turf Moor ten months ago. On this occasion, though, the replacement struggled to make his mark.

Speaking after the win over Salzburg, Klopp acknowledged that Liverpool’s defence had been unusually generous, saying: ‘I’m sure Brendan Rodgers will think if we defend like that against Leicester on Saturday, Jamie Vardy will run around our goalkeeper and score five times!’

It is unclear whether Matip will be ready to face the Foxes or will be kept in reserve for after the international break but following Gomez’s rusty performance, Klopp will surely be keen to bring him back into the fold against Vardy, who has 16 goals in his last 20 Premier League games.

Liverpool’s incredible improvement over the past 18-months has generally been attributed to the club’s success at recruiting high-class, high-value players in Van Dijk and Alisson, both of whom have helped transform a previously iffy backline.

Virgil Van Dijk looked unusually shaky during Liverpool’s 4-3 win against Salzburg on Wednesday (Picture: Getty)

The performances of Liverpool’s less-expensive recruits should not be overshadowed, though, and Klopp alluded to that fact earlier this week when he pointed out that Liverpool snapped up Matip on a free from Schalke 04 in 2016.

‘In a world of big transfer fees, to sign a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible. It was maybe one of the best pieces of business we did in the last few years,’ Klopp beamed, again taking the opportunity to talk up the defender.

At just 22, Gomez has a long career ahead of him at Anfield, but for the time being, Matip is the perfect accompaniment to Van Dijk.


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