What a difference a year makes – just ask Joel Matip, Liverpool’s languid centre-back who is currently playing the best football of his career, 12 months after an injury-ravaged campaign that ruined his season and nearly the entire season of the club.
This time last year, Jurgen Klopp’s battered champions threatened to produce one of the worst title defenses in Premier League history in an unprecedented six-game league losing streak at home that even led to reports that the German was set to leave Anfield. .
The defence, if it can be said to have been its makeshift composition, with midfielders often having to replace, was a shadow of the backline that had been the foundation of the club’s first top-flight title in 30 years in 2019-2020. .
Matip himself, a genuine Klopp favorite having been his very first signing after joining Liverpool on a free transfer from Schalke in the summer of 2016, endured a miserable campaign as one injury after another curtailed his involvement just 10 league outings.
All this after his previous two seasons, both trophy-laden for the club, were also cut short by a string of untimely knee and ankle injuries, with Matip playing just 32 Premier League games during that time.
So much so, in fact, that many have started to wonder if the defender, now in his thirties and with young French centre-back Ibrahima Konate – signed from RB Leipzig last summer – to compete for his place, even had a future at Anfield this season.
Not his manager, however, who wasted no time in restoring Matip to his defense for the opening game of the campaign, a 3-0 win at Norwich City in August, the first of a 19-leaf run white in the league. so far this season.
In total, Matip has been part of a back line that has scored just 22 top goals so far, second only to Man City, while only Chelsea and the champions have scored a first-half goal against the Reds in the Premier League. This year.
So what’s the secret behind their return to defensive solidity this campaign?
“It’s the whole team, starting with the attack, how they put pressure on the players, it’s just the whole team and how we defend,” explained Matip ahead of the Merseyside derby this weekend. end, live on Sky Sports Premier League.
“We’re improving, and it’s not too bad, and we’re uncomfortable for a lot of teams.”
And the return of an injury-free Matip to the backline, although he is too modest to say.
“It’s great for me personally to be fit and able to play and I’m looking forward to staying fit and helping the team and maybe being there to challenge,” he said. added.
One of the main reasons Matip has played so consistently this campaign has been Klopp’s clever rotation between him and Konate in the Premier League and Champions League, with the pair often alternating as Virgil van Dijk’s central defensive partners.
“Ibra did it well so no reason for him not to play too, especially with my injury history, it fit my situation pretty well as well,” Matip said.
That strategy paid off, with Matip producing the best form in his six years at the club so far, winning the Premier League Player of the Month for February, which included an eye-catching solo goal in the 6-0 home thrashing of Leeds United.
“It’s easier for me because I haven’t had a big injury and I’ve carried on, we’re just in great shape as a team and everyone can play for themselves, which is better, and we’re just in good shape now,” he said. “And you see that for all my teammates.”
However, it was not just Matip’s goals that created the buzz at Anfield, but also his now signature dribbling out of defense that often opened up an opposition back line – as seen recently when he created the first game for Luis Diaz at Brighton and then again in the move that put the hosts 2-0 down Man Utd at Anfield on Tuesday night with one of the team goals of the season.
“That’s one of the options, I try to pass, but sometimes it’s just easier to take a few steps and drag some of my opponents and maybe make more space for my teammates, or a little more space for me,” he said modestly. “And I just see the opportunity and if it helps, why not?!”
As Klopp’s first signing as Liverpool manager, Matip is perhaps best placed to judge the quality of this current vintage against the 2018-19 Champions League winners or Premier League champions of the following season.
“We’ve always had a lot of quality, but we’re evolving, our off-the-ball game is getting better and better,” Matip said. “Against the ball, we have always been quite threatening, but from the start, especially with the ball, even against teams that defend deep, or against a team that presses, we have more solutions.
“And from the back, sometimes it’s quite nice to see him and when we get changed and someone comes in at 60-70 minutes, with the kind of impact they have, it’s unbelievable.”
As for Matip himself, however, the German-born defender, whose “life has recently changed” after the birth of his first child Nathan – after the rest a true cult figure on the terraces of Anfield, and more after his highly publicized -about celebrations following Liverpool’s Carabao Cup final victory over Chelsea at Wembley in February.
“If I’ve met people they’re always great with me and some of my teammates remember me from time to time and they send me pictures and stuff,” he said.
“But I’m really honored and happy to be part of the club and people like me are the biggest benefit and it makes me feel really comfortable and at home here.”
Liverpool fans will be hoping to see more of Matip’s wacky moves in the coming weeks, especially after he missed the chance to celebrate the club’s victory together two years ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Of course it would be great, but it’s a long road, there are tough games to be played, but we’re in good shape and I’m looking forward to maybe lifting another trophy at the end.” he declared.
“Of course it would make a huge difference (to celebrate with the fans), but it’s a long way to go, but of course everyone would be looking forward to that moment. But there will be tough games.”
To do that, however, Klopp’s side must keep winning in order to stay behind Manchester City, starting with visiting Merseyside rivals Everton, the Great Sunday.
The Toffees make the short trip through Stanley Park in a relegation dogfight, but for Matip and his teammates, form is going out the window when it comes to these fierce local clashes.
“We know that because for them it’s an opportunity to change the whole game, to bring a different vibe to the club, the team,” he said. “And we have to be aware that they will be there from the first second, try everything and do our best like we are going to do and fight.
“We will try to play our football, so I’m confident we can get a good result.”
Everton’s 2-0 win over Liverpool in the league last February, their first win at Anfield since 1999, will surely have raised the stakes ahead of Sunday’s encounter?
“We all know it’s a really big game for us and the club, we know our situation so we’re only going 100 per cent, there’s no time for breaks, we just have to beat us and knock them down – that’s how we’re going to get into this game,” Matip said.
There are six games to go and any mistake now will surely be decisive in the title race, but that’s how it has been for Liverpool since falling 14 points behind City in mid-January.
It was a win-at-all-costs mentality, or as Klopp told his players before every Premier League game: ‘Go out like it’s the last game you play’.
The middle half is a very important position for us with the way we play. We need very good players there and we have had too many injuries there. Joel is an exceptional player and I think that would really close the race with Milly for the best signing on a free transfer. What we have achieved in recent years would not have happened without them.
Matip agrees, saying it’s the only way he and his teammates see the break-in: “That’s the way we have to approach it, that’s the only way to succeed, that we really put our all into it. implemented.
“It’s not always easy, we try to do it and make it happen, and go the last meter because we know it could be a really decisive meter – we just have to try everything and that’s a way of do it.”
And after all the pain and time on the sidelines over the past few years, what better way for one of Klopp’s ‘top free signings’ to end this campaign than by celebrating a record 20th title win? high-flying than in front of a packed Anfield in May.
Liverpool match schedule:
To rearrange: Southampton Premier League, live on Sky Sports
April 24 – Everton (h) premier leaguelive on Sky Sports
April 27 – Villarreal (h) Champions League SF first leg
April 30 – Newcastle (a) premier league
May 3 – Villarreal SF Champions League second leg
May 7 – Tottenham (h) premier league
May 10 – Aston Villa Premier League, live on Sky Sports
May 14 – Chelsea (Wembley) FA Cup Final
May 22 – Wolves (h) premier league
May 28 – Champions League Final *