Joel Matip's renaissance shows he still has plenty to offer for Liverpool

Joël Matip is one of the more interesting figures at Liverpool.

He’s reached cult hero status for his personality, from the cartoon-like faces he pulls to his dry sense of humour…

Yet beyond the bizarrely charming nature of the former Cameroon international, there is a centre back that has been key to Liverpool’s success in recent years – particularly the Champions League campaign that ended in victory in Madrid in 2019.

It often gets overlooked just how good the Bochum-born defender has been at his stint at Anfield, with most of the attention (not undeservingly) going to his partner, Virgil van Dijk.

Matip has been a phenomenal one-on-one defender, he’s been aerially dominant (70% aerial duel success rate across his Liverpool career), he’s a progressive monster with the ball at his feet (who doesn’t love those gallops into the final third?) and he’s scored his fair share of goals.

There is no denying, though, is that it hasn’t been plain sailing.

Injuries have taken their toll. Matip has missed over 100 games for the Reds in his eight seasons at the club. Last season was underwhelming for everyone involved, as Liverpool rallied too late from a poor start and could only finish in the Europa League places. It was particularly disappointing for Matip, who managed less than half the game time of the previous campaign (2021/22).

With his place in the team – or at least strongest starting XI – gone, the man that takes his place, Ibrahima Konaté, has a body that is just as bad (if not worse) at keeping him on the pitch.

That has presented Matip with lots of opportunities. The biggest question mark was how he could adapt to the altered responsibilities of Liverpool’s right-sided centre back. Towards the final third of last season, Klopp changed things. Trent Alexander-Arnold started moving inside in possession, becoming part of the midfield pivot and beyond. That shifted the right centre back’s position wider, asking them to cover more ground and defend wider areas.

Joel Matip, ProsShots

For much of last season he wasn’t even picked to be in that role, only playing two full 90s after the Arsenal game, away at West Ham and in the dead rubber final game against Southampton.

That question mark continued into pre-season, where Matip did play a lot of minutes, but didn’t look suited to the role.

He was being asked, as mentioned above, to cover the right back area and was isolated one-on-one against the attackers. Matip is a very good 1v1 defender, but he tends to thrive in those duels in central areas, and he didn’t look comfortable defending out wide, and he no longer looked to have the legs to be able to cover the increased amount of space. I even wrote a piece three months back in which I concluded that if Klopp wanted to prolong Matip's Anfield career, he’d be best used as a backup to van Dijk rather than in his usual role.

So, let’s have a look at this season so far. Matip has featured in 12 of Liverpool’s 18 games, playing a total of 902 minutes (for context, he played 1,605 in total last season).

It hasn’t’ been perfect for Matip, as he was one of the starting central defenders in both of Liverpool’s defeats this season, including that heart-breaking own goal away at Tottenham. However, judging anyone in that game feels harsh, given the sides depleted numbers. Against Toulouse, Matip added to the chaos and lackadaisical performance in France.

But those poor performances have been an outlier, and Matip was far from the worst of a bad bunch last Thursday. Let’s have a look at the positive impact that Liverpool’s number 32 has provided.

His standout performance this season was Sunday’s 3-0 win against Brentford. It encapsulated everything that he still has to offer. The biggest positive was his (and van Dijk’s) proactive approach to defending. Brentford’s attacking unit of Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa are extremely quick, but Liverpool’s approach stifled their game (bar a counterattack from a corner that resulted in an Alisson save).

Instead of dropping back five or so yards, Liverpool’s defenders engaged with Mbeumo and Wissa as soon as they got the ball, which was often in Brentford’s own half. This approach even resulted in Mohamed Salah’s opening goal.

Christian Nørgaard pokes the ball into the path of Wissa, who is still a distance from the halfway line inside his own half. Before the Congo international can get the ball under control he’s met in an instant by Matip, who is able to sweep the ball into the path of Dominik Szoboszlai, who in turn gets it out his feet quickly to Alexander-Arnold and then in an instant Salah is through on goal thanks to some great linkup play by Darwin Núñez. Liverpool turned a defensive situation into a goalscoring one, all thanks to Matip’s proactive play.

This was a common theme throughout the game. It helped Liverpool dominate the possession and the chances, strangling Brentford when they were in possession. It even led to another infuriating (yet meme-able) moment…

When he had the ball, he was efficient with it.

We know what he’s good at, he’s an elite level player at carrying the ball up the pitch and he’s a very good passer of the ball. Overall, this season his numbers are at some of their lowest of his Liverpool career. He’s carrying the ball more (55 per 90) yet he’s putting up less progressive carries and carries into the final third. He’s passing the ball just as much as he has throughout his Anfield career, yet he’s putting up less progressive passes and passes into the final third.

If you looked at the raw numbers, you might assume that Matip is not as efficient in possession as he once was – but that’s not the case.

The truth is that Liverpool’s centre backs are no longer asked to be as progressive as they once were. The midfield is now full of “progressive monsters” (as I like to call them). Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, Ryan Gravenberch and Curtis Jones all thrive at dropping deep and receiving the ball before driving up the pitch and picking a pass. Whereas it used to be Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and company, who weren’t as comfortable doing so.

It’s small things like this that often don’t get picked up on that make the difference. This change in personnel in midfield means that Matip is no longer wandering as far up the pitch with the ball, and then having to bust a gut getting back if the ball is turned over.

This then helps him conserve energy and focus more on the defensive side of things, which he’s asked to do more of with Alexander-Arnold’s floating central position. Matip quite frankly doesn’t have the legs anymore, but Klopp is finding a way of maximising his output when he’s on the pitch.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how comfortable Matip has been shuffling across and defending wide areas, which was the biggest concern with him in the new system. He is able to cover more ground and his positioning and knowledge of when to engage and when to back off is second to only van Dijk in the squad.

I had my doubts about extended periods of Matip in the first team this season, and I still do to some extent (if we have to play him weekly he just doesn’t have the legs for it across an entire season). But the way they’ve managed to alter the position to focus more on exerting himself defensively and the new midfield being the hub of progression has been incredibly positive.

Last season looked like it could be the end of Matip’s Liverpool career. This season has shown that he still has a lot to offer.

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