It was only a matter of seasons ago that Joël Matip was deemed unreliable at Liverpool – he’s now a substantial figure in the European champions’ back line.
Representative of manager Jürgen Klopp’s tenure at Anfield, the ride to the top for the former Cameroon international hasn’t been straightforward, and why would it be?
Matip knew that there was a challenge for the new-look Reds when he signed his pre-contractual agreement to move to Merseyside in February 2016. Liverpool would notably go on to fall at the big occasion twice that campaign, once at Wembley in the League Cup final against Manchester City, the other at the hands of Sevilla who arguably played them off the pitch in the Europa League final in Basel.
That, along with the fact that Liverpool finished eighth that season behind the likes of West Ham and Southampton, made it an underwhelming year for a club that was currently in a trophy drought – a total yield of one League Cup in 10 years was surely an indication of the decline of what was once one of the most feared teams in Europe.
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If you took the time to stop and watch what was going on at Anfield, however, this was not the year of disappointment and defeat it was perceived as by rival fans. Klopp’s prowess and spirit had already begun to spread across the club like a wildfire, with players taking notice too.
The infectious brand of football that the current crop of talent at the club was already beginning to implement with ease was attractive and even if the world’s best weren’t taking notice, the right people were. Matip was one of them.
That 2016 summer transfer window saw 16 players leave the club for pastures new. Alternatively, there was only six new arrivals at Melwood. Whatever Klopp’s plan was, he didn’t want any old bit-part player joining his dynasty – the fact that Gini Wijnaldum and Sadio Mané were two of the other five players who signed that summer serves as an indication to that.
Klopp saw a lot of potential in Matip, and he himself must have saw a lot of potential in Klopp. After all, he would have been able to witness the work that the German had done at Schalke’s rivals Borussia Dortmund during his years in the Bundesliga.
The first half of the 2016/17 season would, as we all know, be blighted by a dip in form at the turn of the year, but at the time it looked like the Reds had found their answer to their chronic defensive frailties in their new centre back. Matip was superb for the beginning of that campaign, seemingly improving those around him in defence in a transitional period which saw Liverpool defy odds on paper.
James Milner was playing at left-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold had only just been given his first-team debut and Andy Robertson had just been on the receiving end of a 6-1 defeat at Anfield with Hull City. Matip’s and defensive partner Dejan Lovren’s goals at Selhurst Park in a 4-2 win against Crystal Palace in October that season signified the quality that the pair had been producing.
The Reds’ January collapse in 2017 is well documented. Pushing Chelsea for the top spot at Christmas only to have dropped out of the top four by February was as enigmatic as it was disheartening. Losses against Hull, Leicester, Swansea, Southampton (twice – home and away) and Wolves (who finished 15th in the Championship that season) and a goalless draw at home to fourth tier Plymouth Argyle set the tone for a miserable few months on Merseyside. The squad’s form had dipped, including Matip’s.
Although a vast improvement in form helped Liverpool finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League, it was obvious that reinforcements were needed to push on ahead of the 2017/18 season. That summer didn’t see any other centre backs arrive at the Reds, outlining the importance that Matip had to perform when called upon in order to build on the previous year.
The season would prove an underwhelming one for Liverpool’s No.32 however, sidelined for a total of 19 games across all competitions, starting just 22 games in the Premier League and missing out on seven occasions in Europe as Liverpool fell short of their sixth European Cup against Real Madrid – a final that the 28-year-old would also miss out on.
Matip only played 105 minutes of knockout stage football in the build up to the club’s road to Kiev due to a season ending hamstring injury, all of which came against Porto.
To make matters worse, Lovren’s upturn in form had the Croatian playing some of the best football of his Reds career, whilst the record-breaking signing of Virgil van Dijk in January proved to be one of the clubs best pieces of business in recent history – the Cameroonian had new competition and it seemed like he was about to serve as backup to a new partnership.
It wasn’t just those two that were standing in the way of Matip’s chances to regain a starting role for Klopp. By this time Alexander-Arnold had captured the hearts of Liverpudlians and established himself as one of the most promising full-backs in the world, allowing Joe Gomez to play in his more suited centre-back role.
A few games into the 2018/19 campaign and the Englishman and van Dijk were being hailed as one of the most exciting defensive partnerships in Europe, limiting Matip to just three starts in four months.
When he finally got his opportunity to dislodge Gomez of a starting spot, he suffered a fractured collarbone and spent the majority of December on the injury table, finally returning to the starting line-up against Crystal Palace at home in January 2019.
Gomez had also suffered injury in the winter period, undergoing ankle surgery after an injury at Turf Moor against Burnley in December, keeping him out until the end of the season. Whilst the injury was a devastating blow at the time, it provided Matip with another opportunity to prove his worth in a now title-challenging Reds side.
He didn’t waste it.
The second half of the season saw Matip produce arguably the best games of his career to date, forming a rigid duo with van Dijk who, as we all know, was asserting himself as one of the best players in the world.
The Dutchman’s talent appeared to rub off on his new partner, reigniting the form that he had produced at the start of his Liverpool career with a string of dominant, assertive showings that began to catch the eyes of Reds fans who began to sing his praises.
Matip’s confidence was there for all to see, and fans would begin to expect a somewhat trademark run from the 6ft 5in man – carrying the ball from his own half into the middle of the park before producing a innovative ball to one of Liverpool’s front three to breach enemy lines.
Although Matip’s lanky, slim build stereotypically characterises him as a one-dimensional defender, he’s anything but. He is somewhat confusingly fast for a player of his size and he has the ability to go toe-to-toe with any opposition striker, showcased on the road to the Champions League final where the Cameroonian played all 90 minutes in what could very well be the greatest European night at Anfield ever – the 4-0 win against Barcelona.
A year on from heartbreak in Kiev, Matip found himself in the starting lineup for Liverpool’s sixth European Cup triumph against Tottenham at the Wanda Metropolitano, highlighting how much he had improved over the past months. His assist for Divock Origi’s 87th-minute strike will always be remembered by those watching on the day and, if nothing else, he will always be remembered as a European champion.
Last season’s outings have deservedly made him a regular fixture for the Reds since August, and he has been able to maintain his place even whilst the likes of Gomez and Lovren sit impatiently for some game time.
The fact of the matter is that Matip has been phenomenal and, in a world where his partner van Dijk is UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, he is the unsung hero who is finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves.