Liverpool continued the defence of their Champions League crown in a game of mixed emotions last week, as FC Salzburg announced themselves at Anfield.
The Reds hosted the Austrian outfit and began the game in scintillating fashion, racing into a three-goal lead before half-time. It seemed as though Salzburg may have bitten off more than they could chew, until five minutes before the break when Hwang Hee-chan gave the visitors a lifeline.
The South Korean’s late first-half goal appeared to provide hope for Die Mozartstädter. Having come out for the second half, the anticipation may well have made it a long period for Salzburg to wait, but it proved much to the contrary. In the matter of a 15 minute break, the tide appeared to have turned.
Out of the blue, Jesse Marsch’s side were in the ascendancy and fancied their chances of a huge upset at Anfield. Two goals just four minutes apart for the Reds’ opposition meant that the game was level after being seemingly finished earlier.
A fair reflection would be that Salzburg deserve credit for their display in pinning the Reds back defensively and getting at the experienced back four. It was far from Virgil van Dijk’s best night in a Liverpool shirt, but also the omission of Joël Matip seemed to have also made an impact.
Liverpool were dealt a blow when the in-form centre-back was ruled out for the game after sustaining a ‘slight knock’ against Sheffield United. The Cameroonian has been superb as of late and he even picked up the man of the match award for his performance against Chelsea two weeks ago.
Matip’s absence allowed a return to the side for Joe Gomez — who made his first appearance in the competition this season. The England international, who was Jürgen Klopp’s apparent first choice until Matip’s resurgence, has been restricted in terms of first-team minutes this season.
As far as options go, the Englishman is certainly an adequate replacement for arguably any team in the Premier League. Regardless, at this present time his partnership with van Dijk is yet to flourish on the same level that is shown when Matip accompanies the Dutchman.
Gomez is an outstanding defender in his own right but, since forging himself as a regular presence at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, Matip has unquestionably gone from strength to strength and is now ahead in the pecking order.
Formerly of German side Schalke 04, the 28-year-old previously found himself in the Bundesliga team of the year — something which may reoccur in England if he continues his form. He has proven himself comfortable on the ball, yet also calm at the back. The two combined offer a good foundation for a top central defender in the modern game.
When he first arrived at Anfield, there were certainly questions over his composure and perhaps even his technique on the ball. He appears to have worked vigorously on both aspects of his game and he is now confident moving the ball forward, whilst having the ability to dribble into dangerous areas, linking defence with attack.
Alongside van Dijk, the defensive pairing Liverpool have on offer right now is among the best in world football. During the game against Salzburg it was clear that — defensively — something was missing.
The Reds have been relative solid so far this season, but improvements still need to be made and Klopp will hope his defence can improve on the two Premier League cleans sheet claimed so far.
Joël Matip will be out to play a major role in doing so.