by Sam Patterson (@sam0007ster)
Joel Matip is currently one of the most underrated footballers kicking a football (when he’s injury free…). I know, bold claim.
But I heard someone else say it – might have been on social media, not sure – and I cannot help but think there is at least some – SOME – substance to that claim.
Indeed, a fully-fit Matip (this is the stumbling block: his ability to stay fit) can be a “a world-class centre-half“, according to Jurgen Klopp. The German was speaking after the defender signed a new long-term contract at the club in October 2019.
The 29-year-old joined the Reds on a free from Bundesliga side Schalke in June 2016.
The Cameroonian, when fit (there appears to be a trend emerging here), was a vital cog in the 18/19 Liverpool defence which shipped just twenty-two goals all season – the best defensive record in the country.
To brush that stat with a stroke of context, the Reds have already shipped eleven goals this season, and we are only four games in.
Matip, when fit (getting a little tedious now), was also an ever-present on the road to Lisbon in 2019. He played, for instance, in three mightily impressive shutouts in the knockout stages, among a number of other big wins – 0-0 vs Bayern Munich (with midfielder Fabinho as his partner), 4-0 vs Barcelona, and of course the final itself (2-0).
He also, surely, if not for Alisson Becker, would have received the man of the match award in that final. A win for which he won plenty of pladuits at the time.
Matip, if fit and if he stays fit (here’s hoping), would almost certainly improve almost every defence in the country, which is far from an outlandish claim considering some recent results… no need to list them.
The inference is that the man who has become a semi-meme on Twitter is criminally underrated, overlooked and, concomitantly, underappreciated. By fans and pundits.
But the rather large elephant in the room is his fitness issues.
You see, when he does start getting the recognition he undoubtedly deserves – like when he won the Premier League Player of the Month award in September 2019 for example – he then picks up a minor knock, which then, bewilderingly, turns into something more serious.
Unearthing the reasons behind the sheer bewilderingness is not something that can be intelligibly fleshed out here, of course…
Matip, on average, has missed fifteen games a season for Liverpool through injury according to Transfermarkt (which excludes the time it takes the Cameroonian to break the VVD-Gomez duopoly and re-earn, sometimes re-re-earn, a starting berth).
Another illuminating stat is the fact that Matip has not lost a Premier League football match he has started since January 2018 – a 1-0 defeat to Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium. This is perhaps obscured a touch by the number of games he has missed through injury, but it nevertheless adds weight to the notion that Matip’s importance has gone ever so slightly under the radar.
No slant on Gomez
It was at this point last year that Joe Gomez was the defender hoping to re-earn a starting spot alongside Van Dijk, with fans and reporters far from convinced that the Cameroonian should (or could) be dislodged from the side, such was his form.
But, as is the common trend, injury struck. Matip appeared to aggrevate a lingering knee issue in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford at the end of October. He would not return to the squad until long after Christmas.
This article is by no means me being reactionary (I promise). The dismal 7-2 defeat at Villa park last Sunday was bad. Catastrophically bad. Gomez was bad. Everyone was bad.
Nor am I purporitng to argue that the Cameroonian is a better footballer than the man who was an everpresent in a 99-point championship winning side.
It is only to shed light on someone who, because of misfortune, many may view as, to put it plainly, a footnote amidst all the wins, all the records, all the trophies, all the glamour.
It is also to reanimate that, in Klopp years – from inital progression, to top four, to trophy-winners, to near-invincibles – he’s been here since the beginning.
Matip joined the club just prior to Klopp’s first full season in charge (with Liverpool languishing in mediocrity – 8th), and the German knows full well how lucky he was to snap up the centre-half on a free.
Speaking in September 2019, Klopp said: “In a world of big transfer fees, to sign a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible”.
“It was maybe one of the best pieces of business we did in the last few years”.
That’s high praise when you consider the additions Klopp’s made to the squad since his arrival – Mane, Salah, Virgil, Alisson and co.