Liverpool’s oh-so-near miss in pursuit of the Premier League title and their hectic journey in the Champions League has seen their front line lauded as they plundered goals aplenty. It’s undoubtedly also true, however, that the club’s defence has been a rock upon which the success has been built. Much of the acclaim for this stinginess at the back has been credited to the arrival of goalkeeper Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk for big money last summer, and that’s entirely appropriate. It should not however be overlooked that before either of those two signings landed at Anfield, an improvement in defensive reliability was under way, and the often-maligned Joel Matip deserves much credit for that improvement, and indeed for his contribution to the recently completed season.
Matip arrived at Anfield on a free transfer after seeing out his contract at German club Schalke. After seven Bundesliga seasons, and more than 250 appearances for the Gelsenkirchen club, the German-born Cameroon international was clearly a well-established defender at the top level, and perhaps the very player Liverpool needed to bolster their back line having just conceded 50 goals in the previous Premier League season. It had taken the Kop’s new top man, Jürgen Klopp, a season to establish the areas he needed to work on and given his long experience in the Bundesliga and intimate knowledge of the players there, it’s no small compliment that the move to take Matip to Merseyside was one of his first actions.
In his first term with the Reds, Matip made 29 Premier League appearances, the number of goals Klopp’s team conceded fell from 50 to 42 and their position improved from finishing eighth to a fourth place and Champions League qualification. It was a move in the right direction that Liverpool continued the following term. Another fourth-place finish saw again a decrease in goals conceded; this time falling to 38 with Matip playing in 25 of those Premier League games as other recruits came to the club and competition for places increased.
Of course, before the start of the 2018-19 season, the squad options in the defensive back line offered many selection possibilities for the manager. As well as the emergence of a pair of young full-backs in Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez and the potential of playing a modified midfielder to partner Van Dijk meant that competition for places was hotter than ever, but in a team that conceded a paltry 22 league goals, Matip still made 18 Premier League appearances.
The question then arises, of course, that given the increased choice Klopp has to select a partner next to the surely immovable Van Dijk, who offers the best statistical return. Some may be surprised by the answer. Analysis completed in April, just ahead of the final few games of the season, suggests that the unsung, often ignored, Matip may just be the best option when compared to Lovren or Gomez.
If goals are a striker’s currency, then clean sheets and not conceding are the measures by which defenders are judged. At the time of survey, Matip had started 16 times for Liverpool, and in those games had maintained eight clean sheets, conceding just eleven times. Playing as a centre-back, Gomez had started nine games with five clean sheets, and four conceded an average of a goal per game in the remaining four. Lovren also started nine games at centre-back, and also had five clean sheets, but conceded five goals in the other four games.
Purely looking at goals conceded, of course, takes no consideration of the results in those games, so how do things stack up in relation to results when comparing the records of the three players? In Lovren’s nine starts, Liverpool won seven, drew one and lost to Manchester City. Gomez’s nine games brought seven wins and two draws. Matip however arguably has the best record of the three. His 16 starts were also undefeated, bringing 12 victories and four draws.
We can also evaluate the various contributions of the players via the plethora of statistical information provided in the modern game. Matip comes out on top for successfully committing most tackles in those same games, averaging 2.22, Gomez is second at 1.50, with Lovren third at 1.30. The Cameroon international also tops out in terms of interceptions, recording an average of 1.80 per game, ahead 1.20 for Gomez and 0.81 for Lovren. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone to top the charts on all measures of course, and for success in headed duels, Matip comes in second behind Lovren. The Serb has 4.50 on average with Matip close behind on 4.0. Gomez is a mere 2.13.
There are lies, damned lies and statistics, as the old saying goes, and that’s probably never more true than when looking at how maths can sometimes be seen to be reducing football to a painting by numbers exercise, and while such things should be given due regard, it would be folly to use them as a drunken man may use a lamp-post, that is more for support than illumination!
For a player who is often castigated by press, pundits and fans alike however, such analysis probably suggests there’s much more to Matip’s game than is perceived at first glance. Jürgen Klopp clearly had, and retains, confidence in the defender as a key element in his squad as they appear set on a relentless pursuit of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team in the race for trophies both domestic, and perhaps in the future, on the continental stage as well.
Interviewed in The Independent in September 2018, Matip made his intentions clear. “I think it should always be a fear to come to Anfield as an opposing team.” Such things are commonly espoused, but Matip was also realistic enough to appreciate the efforts required to achieve such an aspiration. “… we are working hard to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the opponent and we are on a good way. I think nobody enjoys to play here.” Perhaps, after this season, people will look at the contribution of Joel Matip to Liverpool’s ongoing successes in a different light. If not, they should. Unlike the opposition that the defender refers to in his quotation, perhaps it’s about time for others to recognise that on Liverpool red, he does enjoy playing there and his success reflects that.