Can Joël Matip be a reliable part of Liverpool’s new system?

Pre-season is nearly over, and while people will form their opinions of how it’s gone, there appears to be one thing set in stone – that the new system is here to stay.

Its introduction came against Arsenal as Klopp tried to turn the tide on Liverpool’s season. With Trent Alexander-Arnold pushing into a midfield pivot alongside the now departed Fabinho to create a box midfield, Ibrahima Konaté shifting across to cover the right back space, Virgil van Dijk moving central and Andy Robertson coming into a left centre back role, things worked – for the most part. The club didn’t quite manage to make it into the top four, but with seven wins and two draws in the last stretch of the season, there was evidence it could be sustainable longer term.

However, as the season ended and another began, there was still question marks on how Liverpool would operate in 2023/24. With the departures of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, Alexander-Arnold was almost forced into starting at the base of Liverpool’s midfield three in games against Karlsruher and Gruether Furth. Yet games against Leicester City and Bayern Munich confirmed that the new vice-captain would be starting at right-back but shifting into midfield in-possession.

READ MORE: 7 big questions for Liverpool ahead of the 2023/24 season

While Liverpool have looked great going forward – with four goals scored in each of their four games – there has been major question marks raised about what this season is going to look like defensively. This debate came to fruition after the game against Bayern. Robertson took the main brunt of the criticism, but there was another defender in the backline that looked like a man out of place.

That man was Joël Matip.

At 31 years of age, the Cameroonian defender is in the latter stages of his career. He has been a key member of Liverpool’s numerous trophies in his seven-year spell at Anfield and has largely been considered one of the best central defenders in the league. Yet his performance against the Bundesliga champions raised eyebrows – and not in a good way. I’ve decided to look at whether it was just a bad performance, or if there are deeper concerns.

To start, let’s look at the first two goals Liverpool conceded. After going 2-0 up through Cody Gakpo and Virgil van Dijk, they conceded to a Serge Gnabry goal on thirty-three minutes. Now, on replay the former Arsenal attacker does appear to be offside, but that doesn’t take away from the concerning aspects of the goal. Kim Min-Jae has the ball with no pressure on him in his own half, he’s able to play a long ball over the top towards the space between Liverpool’s right back and right centre back (in this case Alexander-Arnold and Matip).

While the pass from the South Korean defender is great, and Gnabry gets an advantage from being offside, the concerning aspect here is how slow Matip is to deal with the danger. In this first instance he is slow to react to the German attacker. Then, once Gnabry has the ball under control he charges at him uncontrolled and commits when he doesn’t need to. This leaves the attacker with an easy fake and then slots past Alisson.

The most concerning aspect of this is that this was Liverpool in an apparently settled defence. Alexander-Arnold was not pushed up high, nobody was out of position. Matip is slow to react, when he does react, he overcommits. This isn’t just an isolated incident in the game, it happens throughout.

Fast forward to the second goal, which happens just before half time.

Bayern pick up the ball in transition, just inside their own half. Liverpool are this time not in a settled state, and Alexander-Arnold is pushed up. The ball is spread out – again to Serge Gnabry – to the right back area. This area, in Liverpool’s system, is covered by the right centre back. But Matip is far too tucked inside when the ball is played, allowing Gnabry too much space to take a touch and then drive into. This goal is the one that highlights the biggest issue with Matip and his adaptability to the system.

It is now vital that whoever fills that right central defender role in Liverpool’s team to cover the space that Alexander-Arnold leaves behind. What is then needed from that player are two vital aspects – positional awareness and recovery pace. That is what makes Ibou Konaté so perfect for the role. He has extended experience of covering similar areas with his time as a right centre back at both club level with RB Leipzig and internationally with France’s youth setup. He is also in what you could call his pre-prime (the years just before what are supposed to be his best ones) and is blessed with incredible recovery pace.

On the other hand, Matip is past his peak, and had a career that’s often been riddled with time spent on the sidelines through injury. He was never gifted with blistering pace, but he wasn’t slow either, and made up for it with intelligent positioning. Even this though, seems to have declined in recent years. There is a clear compatibility issue with the German-born Cameroonian and the new role. It’s very much like the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Matip is – as mentioned – already in his thirties. He has near enough always been asked to defend the central areas in his career (especially at Liverpool). Attempting to get him to learn a new role and defend new spaces is simply not ideal.

That’s not to say he can’t play there, and you can likely get away with him there against lesser opposition who don’t use an abundance of width in the counterattack. But if Konaté does get injured (as he has done in the past) and Matip must be played there for an extended period, that raises a lot of question marks (there is also Joe Gomez, but that’s another conversation). It will leave this new system, which appears to be the best method of getting the best Trent Alexander-Arnold, in jeopardy. Matip won’t be able to cover space like Konaté does, and it will leave Liverpool extremely vulnerable in wide areas and on the counterattack.

If that’s a situation the club find themselves often in 2023/24, I think that drastically decreases the ceiling of this team.

READ MORE: Why Liverpool simply must buy a defender this summer

However, that does not mean that Matip can’t play a useful role in Liverpool’s squad. He is still one of the best defenders in the world in terms of progression. He’s a high-volume passer and a consistently progressive one – ranking in the 91st percentile for centre backs in Europe’s top five leagues with 5.09 per 90. His punching line-breaking passes into midfield and attacking areas consistently create attacking opportunities for the side. He’s also famous for his driving runs up the pitch, which is reminiscent of watching a gazelle gallop through the savanna. He ranks in the top percentile for progressive carries (2.36 per 90) and completes more passes into the penalty area than most centre backs (ranking in the 93rd percentile – 0.47 per 90), as he is often found in the oppositions final third. This offers Liverpool so much in an attacking sense.

He's the ideal deputy for Virgil van Dijk in the centre of defence. It means that he is defending central areas rather than wide ones, covering the spaces left by the right centre back as they cover wide. Although he has declined in a defensive sense, he’s still an above average player in that sense – at least for now. Managing his game time and limiting the amount of running his legs do means you have a very useful squad member. The central role also allows him to both play those punching balls into the midfield and opportunistically drive into the middle and final thirds with two defenders and a midfielder dropping back to cover the space he is vacating.

The reality is that Matip’s time as a guaranteed starter for Liverpool are gone, and Konaté will be consistently picked ahead of him, especially in the big occasions. That doesn’t mean that Matip’s twilight years can’t be productive, and if he’s managed properly and not asked to do a role he’s unfamiliar with, there will be life in the old dog yet.

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