What a difference a year makes – just ask Joel Matip, the languid Liverpool center-back who is currently playing the best football of his career, 12 months on from an injury-ravaged campaign that ruined his and almost the club’s entire season.
This time last year Jurgen Klopp’s battered champions were threatening to produce one of the worst title defenses in Premier League history during a never-been-seen-before sequence of six straight home league defeats that even led to reports the German was set to leave Anfield .
The defense, if you could call it that such was its makeshift composition, with midfielders often having to fill in, was a shadow of the back line that had been the bedrock of the club’s first top-flight title in 30 years in 2019-20 .
Matip himself, a real favorite of Klopp having been his first-ever signing after joining Liverpool on a free transfer from Schalke in the summer of 2016, endured a miserable campaign as one injury after another reduced his involvement to just 10 league outings.
All this after his previous two seasons, both trophy-laden ones for the club, were also badly interrupted by a succession of untimely knee and ankle injuries, with Matip featuring in only 32 Premier League games during that time.
So much so, in fact, that many began to question whether the defender, now in his 30s and with young France central defender Ibrahima Konate – signed from RB Leipzig last summer – to compete with for his place, even had a future at Anfield this season.
Not his manager, though, who wasted no time at all in restoring Matip to his defense for the opening game of the campaign, a 3-0 win at Norwich City in August, the first of a joint-high 19 clean sheets in the league so far this season.
In total, Matip has been part of a back line that has let in just 22 top-flight goals to date, second only behind Man City, while only Chelsea and the champions have scored a first-half goal against the Reds in the Premier League this year.
So, what’s the secret behind the return of their defensive solidity in this campaign?
“It’s the whole team, starting with the offense, how they put pressure on the players, it’s just the whole team and how we defend,” explained Matip ahead of this weekend’s Merseyside derby, live on Sky Sports Premier League.
“We’re improving, and that’s not too bad, and we’re uncomfortable for a lot of teams.”
And the return of an injury-free Matip to the back line, although they are too modest to say that.
“It’s great for me personally to be fit and be able to play and I’m looking forward to staying fit and help the team and maybe be there to challenge,” he added.
One of the main reasons why Matip has featured so regularly in this campaign has been Klopp’s clever rotation of him and Konate in the Premier League and Champions League, with the duo often alternating as Virgil van Dijk’s central-defensive partner.
“Ibra did it great, so no reason why he shouldn’t play it too, especially with my history of injuries, it also fitted quite good with my situation,” Matip said.
That strategy has paid off handsomely, with Matip producing the best form of his six years so far at the club, winning the Premier League Player of the Month for February, which included an eye-catching solo goal in the 6-0 home drubbing of Leeds United.
“It is easier for me as I did not have a big injury and I kept on going, we are just in a great shape as a team and everyone can perform for themselves, which is better, and we are just in a good shape right now, “he said. “And you see this for all my team-mates.”
However, it is not just Matip’s goals that have been creating a buzz at Anfield, but also his now characteristic dribbles out of defense that often split open an opposition back line – as seen recently when he created the opener for Luis Diaz at Brighton and then again during the move that put the hosts 2-0 up over Man Utd at Anfield on Tuesday night with one of the team goals of the season.
“It’s one of the options, I try to pass, but sometimes it’s just easier to go a few steps and drag some of my opponents out and make maybe some more space for my team-mates, or some more space for me, “He said modestly. “And I just see this opportunity and if it helps, why not ?!”
As Klopp’s first signing as Liverpool manager, Matip is perhaps best placed to judge just how good this current vintage is compared to the 2018-19 Champions League winners, or the following season’s Premier League champions.
“We always had a lot of quality, but we are evolving, our game off the ball gets better and better,” said Matip. “Against the ball, we were always quite a threat, but from the beginning, especially with the ball, even against the deep-defending teams, or against a pressing team, we get more solutions.
“And from the back, sometimes it’s quite nice to see it and when we change and somebody comes in at the 60-70 minutes, with the kind of impact they’re doing, it’s amazing.”
As for Matip himself, though, the German-born defender, whose “life recently changed” after the birth of his first child Nathan – after the remains a real cult figure on the terraces at Anfield, and even more so after his much-talked -Obout celebrations following Liverpool’s Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea at Wembley in February.
“If I meet some people, they are always great to me and some of my team-mates remember me from time to time and they send me some pictures and other things,” he said.
“But I’m really honored and happy to just be a part of the club and that people like me is the biggest plus and it makes me feel really comfortable and like home here again.”
Liverpool fans will be hoping they can see more of Matip’s wacky moves in the coming weeks, especially after missing out on the chance to celebrate together the club’s title win two years ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It would be of course be great, but it is a long way, there are some difficult games to go, but we are in a good shape and I’m looking forward to maybe lifting at the end of another trophy,” he said.
“Of course, it would make a massive difference (to celebrate with the fans), but it’s a long way to go there, but of course everybody would look forward to this moment. But there will be some tough, hard games.”
To do that, however, Klopp’s side need to keep on winning in order to stay on Manchester City’s coattails, starting with the visit of Merseyside rivals Everton on Super Sunday.
The Toffees make the short trip across Stanley Park in a relegation dogfight, but for Matip and his team-mates, form goes out the window when it comes to these fierce local clashes.
“We know this as for them it is the opportunity to change the whole game, to bring a different fashion into the club, the team,” he said. “And we need to be aware that they will be there from the first second, try everything and just try our best like we will do and fight.
“We will try to play our football, then I’m confident we can get a good result.”
Everton’s 2-0 win over Liverpool in the league last February, their first victory at Anfield since 1999, will surely have raised the stakes ahead of Sunday’s encounter?
“We all know that this is a really big game for us and the club, we know our situation, so we only go 100 per cent, there is no time for breaks, we just have to fight and knock them down – this is how we are going to go into this game, “said Matip.
Six games left to go and any slip-up now will surely prove decisive in the title race, but this is how it has been for Liverpool ever since falling 14 points behind City in mid-January.
It has been a win-at-all-costs mentality, or as Klopp has been telling his players ahead of every Premier League contest: ‘Go out as if this is the last game you ever play’.
Center half is a really important position for us with how we play. We need really good players there and we have had too many injuries in that position. Joel is an outstanding player and I think it would really close race with Milly for the best signing on a free transfer. What we have reached in the last few years would not have happened without them.
Matip agrees, saying this is the only way he and his team-mates can look at the run-in: “That is how we have to approach it, that is the only way to be successful, that we really put everything in.
“It’s not always easy, we try to do it and make it happen, and go the last meter as we know it could be a really decisive meter – we just have to try everything and this is one way to do it.”
And after all the pain and time spent sidelined during the past few years, what better way for one of Klopp’s “best-ever free signings” to end this campaign than by celebrating a record-equalling 20th top-flight title win than in front of a packed Anfield in May.
Liverpool’s fixture schedule:
To be rearranged: Southampton (a) Premier League, live on Sky Sports
April 24 – Everton (h) Premier Leaguelive on Sky Sports
April 27 – Villarreal (h) Champions League SF first leg
April 30 – Newcastle (a) Premier League
May 3 – Villarreal (a) Champions League SF second leg
May 7 – Tottenham (h) Premier League
May 10 – Aston Villa (a) Premier League, live on Sky Sports
May 14 – Chelsea (Wembley) FA Cup final
May 22 – Wolves (h) Premier League
May 28 – Champions League final *