Joel Matip: The best partner for Virgil Van Dijk

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We’re four years into Joel Matip’s Liverpool career and only now are we getting to see him finally fulfil his potential.

He arrived during the summer of 2016 and immediately had fans on his side purely by not being Martin Skrtel. For years prior, the Slovakian had been one of the mainstays in a leaky backline for the Reds.

Matip was not just seen as an upgrade but as a better fit in general. His first thought wasn’t to retreat but, instead, he’d look to impose himself on the opposition. A stark contrast to the Skrtel shuffle, where we used to see the Slovakian centre-back scramble for his 18-yard line whenever attackers dribbled towards him.

The Liverpool No.32 didn’t just look to hit long, aimless punts forward. He wasn’t flustered when in possession either. The Cameroon international was, in fact, confident when on the ball. He’d slalom his way past opponents, stepping into midfield and beyond, before playing incisive passes to the feet of his attackers.

His impact was immediate, but he netted his first goal for the Reds in October and was awarded the club’s Player of the Month award for November. Injuries then deprived Jurgen Klopp of the former Schalke man’s services for all of December and some of January.

In Matip’s absence, Liverpool were forced to use Lucas Leiva and Ragnar Klavan beside Dejan Lovren. Injuries and inconsistent form plagued his 2017/18 campaign too meaning the promising performances he put in next to Virgil Van Dijk from January onwards counted for very little.

Injury during pre-season last term meant it was Joe Gomez stepping up as the preferred partner for Virgil van Dijk with Dejan Lovren claiming the back-up centre-back role. The 6ft 4″ defender had to settle with being fourth choice and reports claimed he could well be on the move.

But with injury befalling Lovren and Gomez, Matip was given an opportunity alongside the Dutch behemoth. He was pivotal in Liverpool reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League after an impressive showing in the final group match against Napoli. After that, his influence on the team grew.

Matip started all but one of the knockout matches, helping the Reds to clean sheets against Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Spurs as Liverpool clinched their sixth European Cup. He was a key part of the team in the latter half of the season as Klopp’s men went 17 games unbeaten in the Premier League to see out the campaign. Of those 17 matches, Matip started in 14 of those.

At one stage during the 2018/19 season, it appeared as though Gomez was the undisputed partner for Van Dijk. However, heading into the 2019/20 campaign, Matip was rivalling the young England star. Dominant in the air and even better with the ball at his feet, he was the yin to Van Dijk’s yang. It was a perfect balance, and the pair just seemed to work.

The former Southampton man is imperious in most aspects of his game, but he lacks the guile to carry the ball out and beat four or five opponents. He’s more brutish with his approach. And it works well for him.

That isn’t to say Gomez and the Liverpool No.4 didn’t have a similar partnership, just that Matip’s ability on the ball would be of more use to the Reds in the majority of games. Whereas the ex-Charlton man threads incisive passes between the lines, Matip dances past players and creates space for others.

The Liverpool No.32 has continued his fine form into the new season, too. He netted the equaliser against Manchester City in the Community Shield before opening the scoring against Arsenal as the Reds maintained their 100% start to the Premier League.

Reports suggest he’s in line for a new deal, and his form would warrant it. His current contract expires at the end of the season and, having shown he can perform to a level not far off what Van Dijk has managed recently, it makes no sense to lose Matip for free.

The argument is often put forward that the one-time Celtic man makes all of his partners perform to a higher level. But Matip’s performances aren’t purely reliant on Van Dijk. They appear to have an understanding and a solid foundation for a long-time partnership. Liverpool have alternatives, with Gomez waiting in the wings, but finding a replacement to Matip won’t be as easy as people think. He has a unique skill set that perfectly compliments the Dutchman.

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