Priceless Matip faces career-defining period at Liverpool
When it rains, it pours. Or in Liverpool’s case, when it rains, a monsoon arrives.
The Reds find themselves in one of the most bleak, unfortunate injury situations in their recent history, following an awful period in the fitness department.
When Virgil van Dijk was ruled out for the season with cruciate ligament damage it felt bad enough, but in the weeks since, things have got even worse for Jurgen Klopp.
Having to make do without the likes of Thiago, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was far from ideal, before Fabinho injured his hamstring against Midtjylland.
Then followed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s calf issue against Manchester City last weekend, before Joe Gomez’s heartbreaking injury in England training proved to be the most bitter icing on the cake.
The 23-year-old is expected to be out for the whole season, leaving Liverpool threadbare in the centre-back department, even though Fabinho is hopefully back after the international break.
Aside from Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams, who can do the odd job in the team but aren’t yet equipped to start regularly, we are in a situation where Joel Matip is the Reds’ only fit centre-back.
Considering his dreadful recent injury record, that is alarming in itself, but the importance of the Cameroonian between now and the end of the season is huge, especially before January.
This is going to be a period that could ultimately define Matip’s Liverpool career – he will either be the hero who stayed fit and performed in the absence of a colossal duo, or joined them too frequently on the treatment table, failing to fill the void.
When you look at the 29-year-old’s Liverpool career, it is a curious one.
Since arriving from Schalke, he has largely performed well whenever he has been fit, even though the odd poor performance has occurred, like any player.
He was arguably Man of the Match in the Champions League final win over Tottenham and his quality on the ball and aerial prowess have seen him thrive.
The problem is, Matip has only managed 114 appearances for Liverpool in the four-and-a-bit years he has spent at Anfield, which is telling.
He is yet to make 30 Premier League appearances in a single season and we have only been able to see him in action 16 times since the beginning of 2019/20. He has failed to start back-to-back matches at any point in the last 14 months and only has four starts to his name in 2020.
To further highlight Matip’s lack of availability in a Liverpool shirt, Gini Wijnaldum (199) and Sadio Mane (181) both joined in the same summer, yet aren’t too far away from doubling his appearances numbers.
This is why it is so hard to depend on Matip during what is going to be one of the most testing periods of Klopp’s reign – as soon as he finds a groove, he finds himself back on the sidelines.
Judging by the last year or two, it is going to be almost impossible to expect the former Schalke man to play every three or four weeks for a sustained period, so managing him sensibly and ensuring he is available for the bigger games has to be the best way to tackle the situation.
There are 11 games for Liverpool between now and the New Year, three of which are in the Champions League.
Matip should be left out of every one of those European outings in place of either Phillips or Williams, or even an auxiliary centre-back such as Wijnaldum or Jordan Henderson.
Frankly, if Liverpool manage to make a mess of their progression to the knockout rounds without Matip, having racked up maximum points so far, they don’t deserve to qualify.
The visit of Leicester next weekend stands out as a big game, especially with the Foxes topping the Premier League, so a Matip-Fabinho partnership is needed.
The trip to Brighton and home clash with Wolves that follow, on November 28th and December 5th respectively, also look like important games to start Matip in, whereas Fulham away on December 12th is a challenge you would hope Liverpool could hurdle without him.
Resting him for that match is even more important, considering Liverpool’s next task after that is Tottenham at home just four days later, with Jose Mourinho’s side growing increasingly confident about mounting a title challenge.
The thought of the Reds coming up against Gareth Bale, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, with Fabinho and either a make-do defender or a youngster at the back, is a frightening one.
Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h) and Newcastle (a) complete Liverpool’s league fixtures for 2020, all of which are very winnable and shouldn’t require Matip every time.
By that point, the January transfer window will have opened, and Klopp and Michael Edwards will surely conduct business of some kind, easing the defensive woes and gearing the Reds up for a big push until May.
How big a role Matip plays between now and the end of the season remains to be seen, but he has never felt more indispensable to this team. If he stays fit, Liverpool still look primed for an assault on more silverware.
A likeable character who seems immensely popular among his teammates, Matip’s status could go from cult hero to legendary if he excels without Van Dijk and Gomez around and helps Liverpool seal two titles in a row.