From injury hell to being shoehorned in at right-back in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s absence to staring centre-back alongside Virgil van Dijk, it’s been quite the ride for Joe Gomez.
It takes a hell of a lot of mental strength to overcome a cruciate ligament injury. Sitting on the sidelines for such a long period of time, watching countless opportunities pass you by has a huge phycological impact on even the best players. Add to that an Achilles injury just months after and you really do have to tip your hat off to the lad.
The 21-year-old was hardly used in the 2017/18 season, picking up an untimely ankle injury in March before undergoing surgery at the end of the campaign. The latest setback in an injury-plagued career that’s seen him out for a total of 444 days, Gomez would miss England’s World Cup and another phycological fight to regain his fitness and fight for a first-team spot in Klopp’s side.
Few could’ve envisaged the magnitude of his turnaround, though. Utilised sparingly at centre-back since his move from Charlton Athletic, Dejan Lovren’s excursions in Russia paved the way for Gomez to move into his favoured position – an opportunity he’s grasped with both hands with many hoping he retains his spot once the Croatian returns from injury.
There’s little reason to suggest that won’t be the case given he’s yet to put a foot wrong in the opening four games. The guidance of Van Dijk alongside the reassuring presence of Brazilian No.1 Alisson has served as a huge positive for the Englishman, with a clear improvement in positioning and overall reading of the game a promising indicator for the future of Liverpool’s back-four.
None of this is to say that Van Dijk has been carrying the 21-year-old. Indeed, he has grown into his own, with positional worries and the ability to grasp the flight of the ball now a world away.
What’s more, being utilised at full-back appears to have helped him, forcing him out of his comfort zone and learning how to adapt and tweak his game to certain situations. Likewise, the increasing demands of full-backs in an attacking sense will have given Gomez confidence to play out from the back, building and transitioning from front to back as the manager’s philosophy requires.
Liverpool’s 2-1 win against Leicester was indicative of just that, with his performance parallel to, if not better than, Virgil van Dijk. Where Van Dijk made errors, leaving gaps in defence that enabled the home team to carve open chances, Gomez was equal to everything thrown at him. A sensational last-ditch challenge on James Maddison was crucial in ensuring the points and preventing Liverpool from letting a dominant first-half performance slip in the last fifteen minutes. Had you watched this game with no prior knowledge of the duo, you’d think he was the better, more experienced defender of the two, snapping into tackles and cutting out the danger at every opportunity.
All this begs the question, what happens when Lovren returns to fitness?
The Croatian appeared to turn a corner last season after imploding against Spurs with a series of individual errors and was crucial in the Champions League run in that saw the Reds come agonisingly close to No.6. Growing in confidence alongside Van Dijk, able to strip his game back to the basics as in his Southampton days where the authoritative figure of Jose Fonte saw Lovren operate as a no-nonsense defender rather than one caught in possession. Yet, lapses in concentration and rash challenges have proved his undoing in the past, leaving issues over his consistency to help mount a title challenge.
As for Gomez, continuous injuries over the course of his Liverpool career have stunted his development, making it almost impossible for him to find his feet and gain regular first-team action to realise his potential.
Yet, with a full pre-season under his belt without any World Cup involvement, Gomez now looks ready to be a mainstay at the heart of the defence, working in tandem with Van Dijk to improve Liverpool’s defensive record and lay the foundations for a title challenge this season.
Given he’s not put a foot wrong in the opening four games so far, persistence with the current partnership would be the more fruitful option. There’s also much to be said for stability when vying for a title – messing with a duo that’s shown no signs of wavering thus far would be impertinent. After all, at the youthful age of 21, Joe Gomez is likely to be the future of the club’s defensive picture for years to come.