Opinion: Joel Matip is Liverpool’s most important defender

By Matthew Watkinson

Could Joel Matip be the key to Liverpool’s title ambitions?

As Liverpool have blitzed their way to eight games unbeaten at the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season, their defensive stability has had a huge part to play in building the foundations for a title-chasing side and a fit Matip could be the key to end the Reds’ near 30-year-wait for league success.

The Cameroon international has been at the heart of a Liverpool defence that has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season. Whilst last year’s PFA Premier League player of the year, Virgil van Dijk, has claimed most of the praise this term, Matip has been quietly effective either near-matching or bettering the stats of Liverpool’s record signing.

With a WhoScored rating of 7.62, Matip has had a better start to the season than Van Dijk managing 1.8 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, compared to the Dutchman’s 0.8 and 1.4 tackles and interceptions respectively.

After Joe Gomez sustained a serious leg fracture against Burnley midway through last season, Joel Matip needed to step up to the plate and since his reintroduction to the starting side he has kept his place beside Van Dijk and was key throughout Liverpool’s Champions League winning campaign including a vital assist in the final for the winning goal.

Standing at a colossal 6’5, it shouldn’t come as a suprise that Matip is dominant in the air. According to WhoScored he has the best aerial success rate in the Premier League this season winning 87.8% of his aerial duels. In comparison, his defensive partner Van Dijk has managed a 76.7% aerial success rate.

The styles of Liverpool’s defensive pairing complement eachother when in possession. While Van Dijk frequently spreads play with long passes completing four a game, Matip has developed the ability to run into space and pick out players in the attacking third with 0.3 dribbles per game and 0.2 key passes.

A key change in style for Liverpool’s defence as a whole is their new high-line that they have been using this season. Matip has won 1.5 offsides per game in the Premier League this season, much higher than last season at 0.8 offsides per game.

Addressing Liverpool’s new tactics in a press conference prior to their Carabao Cup third-round tie against MK Dons, Pep Lijnders said, “For me, we are much further than we were last year at the same time.

“We can dictate play much better, our last line feels much more comfortable being higher, we are much more front-footed defensively and, of course, we can control games and spaces better.”

Matip’s form even last season failed to get the recognition it deserved, though after being crowned PFA player of the month for September with a whopping 41% of the vote, there is the feeling that it is becoming a more widely respected opinion that he is developing into one of the best central defenders in the division.

Prior to Liverpool’s Champions League group fixture against Red Bull Salzburg, Matip attained a ‘slight knock’ during the 1-0 victory against Sheffield United and his absence against the Austrian champions was clear, as they let a three-goal lead slip to later be bailed out by a Mohamed Salah winner late-on.

Since arriving at Liverpool on a free transfer from Schalke in 2016, Matip has been plagued with injuries and that will be an overwhelming concern for Liverpool as the Cameroonian has evolved into a mainstay in Jurgen Klopps’ defence.

Matip has missed 197 days through injury since his arrival, absent for 40 games in total. Liverpool will be hoping for a season free of injury and since breaking his collar bone in December of last season he has maintained fitness and other than a slight knock forcing him out of the Salzburg fixture, he has overcome his injury troubles up to now.

If the central defender can remain an option for Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool should be on course to end their 30-year wait for a league title as Liverpool’s steady backline gives a slight advantage over Manchester City who defensively are missing Vincent Kompany’s dominance from the previous season and Aymeric Laporte who should return by Christmas.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Author: DerHans04

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