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The curious case for Joel Matip in midfield

Ask any Liverpool fan who the club’s top center back is at the moment, and Joel Matip is likely to be the first name on peoples’ lips.  But despite the lack of depth behind the big Cameroonian, LFC Transfer Room’s Alex Mansfield (@el_mansfield) believes it might benefit the Reds to test Matip in a defensive midfield role.

It’s no secret that Liverpool’s greatest concerns lie at the back.

There have been glimpses of stability lately, especially at home — Willian’s painful 86th minute equalizer was the first goal conceded at Anfield in more than 500 minutes of play — but displays like the second half debacle at Sevilla do little to instill confidence in the fans, the players, or the manager.

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On more than one occasion, Jürgen Klopp has insisted that the problems are systemic, shifting the focus away from individual errors and onto the culpability of those responsible for covering such mistakes.  He defended Dejan Lovren after TottenhamHe came to Alberto Moreno’s aid after Sevilla.

And the truth is, the problems defensively are far bigger than any one individual.

For all the chopping and changing at the back, Klopp still can’t seem to find the right equation to ensure consistent defensive balance.

But there’s one idea that’s lingered with me, despite how ludicrous it sounds coming out of my mouth: why don’t we try Joel Matip as a defensive midfielder?

Just hear me out…

All the right tools

That Matip has been the steadiest of a shaky bunch isn’t saying much, but he still has to be the first name on the team sheet when healthy.  There’s plenty of hype surrounding Joe Gomez, with the hyperbole reaching a fever pitch after his Man-of-the-Match debut performance for England.  But it seems clear that Klopp won’t risk playing the 20-year-old in his preferred center back role without proper cover, i.e. until Nathaniel Clyne is healthy and can flank him on the right.

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That leaves Lovren and Ragnar Klavan, neither of whom has particularly covered himself in glory this season.  (That’s a bit harsh on Klavan, who’s been solid apart from the match away to Manchester City, but he’s not meant to be in our first-choice pairing every week).

So why on earth take Matip out of the center back equation and stick him in a defensive midfield role?

1. Reading of the play

The biggest issue with our current defensive midfield prospects is that not a single one of them is a defensive midfielder by trade. Each of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, and even Georginio Wijnaldum has had some impressive showings in the role, but it’s still very much a learned skillset for all of them.

Shielding a defense is decidedly different to the defensive responsibilities of a box-to-box midfielder or, in Wijnaldum’s case, a historically attacking midfielder.

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Matip has spent more time than any of these guys on the other side of the ball.  His game is structured around sniffing out danger and stopping the play proactively rather than reactively.  He is just as comfortable stepping out to pick off a pass as he is snapping into a tackle.

Most importantly, though, Matip has seen the Liverpool setup and its inherent issues from the back end — whether you want to call it insight or empathy, he knows and understands where the defense needs the most help.

2. Ability on the ball

It’s pretty useless to reference Matip’s passing stats, as they’re taken strictly within the context of his center back role; rather, we should simply use the eye test, as it tells us plenty in this case.

From the moment we scouted Matip, it’s been abundantly clear that he handles the ball well for a player of his size.  And since he’s joined the Reds, we’ve seen plenty of evidence to support the notion that he’s pretty damn proficient in possession.  He possesses a wonderful ability to break the lines with his passing or, much to our enjoyment as fans, make marauding runs up the pitch.  As a No. 6, the hope is that he’d be doing more of the former than the latter, but it’s good to know he has ability!

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Most importantly, Matip is calm and assured in possession and, more often than not, picks the right passes.  If he were deployed in a deep-lying midfield role, he’d be more responsible for starting transition play than facilitating it — with the abundance of movement his teammates can offer ahead of him, I can’t imagine he’d be found wanting.

Matip will never be a new, 6’5″ brand of regista, but that’s not what’s needed of him anyhow.

3. Added protection for Gomez

As mentioned before, Klopp doesn’t seem too keen on deploying Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold together, meaning the former’s chances at center back hinge upon Clyne’s return to fitness.

Having a proper defensive shield, however, might change Klopp’s feelings on the issue.

While Gomez continues to put in fine performances at right-back, it behooves Klopp to give him an extended run in his natural position, especially in the Premier League.  The England international no doubt has the physical tools to be a force in the long-term, but center of the box is an altogether different beast in one of the world’s most combative leagues.

Matip’s perception and influence in front of the back four could provide an ideal buffer, allowing for simpler decision-making at the back and — ideally — a more consistent, reliable structure with Gomez at the heart of it.

4. Freedom for other midfielders

Much has been made of Klopp’s manic midfield — on some days, they look absolute world-beaters (see Hoffenheim H, Arsenal H) and on other days they look completely wayward (Sevilla A).  There are a number of factors at play in the inconsistency of these performances, but there’s no denying that some of the trouble stems from playing the likes of Henderson and Can in roles that don’t best utilize their respective abilities.

Henderson has been lauded for his engine since his days at Sunderland, but he often has to play on a condensed pitch because of his defensive responsibilities.  This greatly nullifies his ability to press (one of his strongest assets) and get involved in the attack higher up the pitch.

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The same goes for Can, who prefers to burst forward with the ball when given the opportunity, often leaving his defense exposed if someone doesn’t cover.  Klopp’s recent switch to a double pivot seemed to alleviate a bit of this, with Wijnaldum playing deep alongside the German.  Still, it’s not a natural progression for either player.

Matip’s primary objective would be providing defensive cover, meaning he would predominantly stay at home when Liverpool have possession.  This would allow the likes of Can, Wijnaldum, and Henderson a bit more freedom — the same can be said for other options like Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, and James Milner.

5. He’s done it before

During his time at Schalke, Matip spent a decent amount of time occupying this exact role.  Though the system was different, his duties were much the same and took full advantage of his skillset.

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Every new role will have a learning curve, but the fact that Matip already has baseline knowledge of the position, coupled with first-hand experience in a top league, makes it a far more approachable prospect.

Klopp’s system would have its own inherent set of nuances and responsibilities, but Matip certainly wouldn’t be learning from scratch.

Is it in the cards?

Well…this is open for debate.

Is it possible? I certainly think so.

Is it probable? Eh…

A lot obviously depends on what happens in January.  If the Reds add to their defensive ranks — as many believe they will — then I personally think this becomes an even more attractive option in games where defensive stability is paramount.  Just imagine having a calm, dominant Dutch center back alongside any one of Gomez, Lovren, or Klavan, but with a genuine protective shield in front of them…

That being said, Matip is and will continue to be a lynchpin at the back, and his status as a top-pairing center back is not likely to vanish anytime soon.

 

 

Alex Mansfield
Co-owner, editor-in-chief of LFC Transfer Room. @el_mansfield on Twitter. Love a good, civilized debate!

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