By Max Gallagher (@maxgallwrites)
The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author – linked above – and is not necessarily a representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…
Players these days can play well past the age of 65. But some players get even better.
I saw a quote from an interview with Joel Matip on Twitter recently; the quote read: ‘I have been here five years already. It is a special club and a special city. You feel it everywhere you go.’ If you want to endear yourself to the Anfield faithful, you simply need to – sincerely or otherwise – mention how much you love Liverpool itself. Underneath the quote, a fan tweeted: ‘name going on the back of my shirt for defo’. Five years ago if you had suggested you were getting Matip’s name on the back of your shirt you would have been laughed at. Or, for that matter, five months ago. So what has changed?
I think most independent observers and commentators would agree without a doubt at this point that Joel Matip looks a bit like a giraffe. He has a long neck and an adorably small head. I know it’s not polite to compare human beings to animals but since a giraffe is everyone’s favourite creature, and Matip is the world friendliest centre-half, I doubt he’ll mind. Who doesn’t love a giraffe? Incidentally, giraffes are the only animals other than human beings who bury their dead. This is a fact. At least, I read it somewhere reliable a long time ago. I don’t want to google it now and ruin the illusion for myself. It does seem unlikely though. It’s hard to picture – a crowd of giraffes standing around in the cold drizzle nudging one of their mates into a big hole. Then afterwards shuffling off in groups of two or three, pondering mortality and the passage of time. It just doesn’t seem plausible.
When Joel Matip arrived on a free transfer in the summer of 2016, Jurgen Klopp said he would save Liverpool millions. At the time, that didn’t seem very plausible either. When a new manager arrives from a lower league, they will usually try to bring in a couple of cheap-ish signings from their homeland who they hope will be sneaky successes, but are usually donkeys. For example, in the same transfer window, Ragnar Klavan was also brought in from the Bundesliga. He was another unknown quantity, and eyebrows were raised. As the captain of Estonia, he had some pedigree, but not much. Estonia is that small Baltic country that nestles up against Russia. Since Russia is apparently now hellbent on trying to infiltrate the West and undermine it geopolitically with every statecraft trick in the book, Estonia is in a rather vulnerable place, a little bit like Europe’s adam’s apple. With all the cyber espionage and Novachek flying around, Estonians have to be tough as nails. Klavan was certainly that (the man is named after a Viking, for Christ’s sake) but he was a little bit short and a little bit slow and was never going to be the answer. But who was this slender, elegant German-Cameroonian?
When Klopp first arrived, it was off the back of a managerial sacking that had been brought about mostly by defensive calamities. But in his first season in charge, Liverpool conceded two goals more than Brendan Rodgers had done in his terminal final season. In fact, Klopp’s first season represents Liverpool’s largest goals against tally in the Premiership era. Most people were sure that Klopp would ring the changes at the first opportunity. One January transfer window went by and the club did not act. In the summer of 2016, therefore, all the talk was of who club was going to bring in to solve our defensive problems. The answer, apparently, was no-one. Matip was the main addition to the backline – a free transfer from Schalke. The fans took to him immediately, it must be said, due to his clear ability and off-field demeanour. He was a ball player, an athlete and a goal threat from set-pieces. But he had injury niggles and, although he was Liverpool’s first-choice defender that season, the stats were not particularly flattering.
After Klopp’s first full season at the helm (although we had made the top four and showed some improvement, playing aggressive attacking football) the defence was still the major problem. Liverpool were conceding an average of a goal per game in the Premier League, and every press conference was identical to the one before. After one match, Klopp stormed off in the tunnel during the post-match interview when a reporter had the audacity to mention our poor defensive record. ‘Always the same, always the same!’ hissed Klopp as he walked away. Despite the manager’s indignance, it was a concern for every single fan that he had not apparently made overhauling the defence a major priority. However, unbeknownst to us, Klopp was simply waiting for the right man to come along. A bit like a romantic waits for a knight in shining armour, or that girl next door who looks a bit like your mum. Sometimes miracles do happen though. Sometimes dreams can come true. And history, of course, would prove Klopp right.
In January 2018, Virgil van Dijk arrived, if my memory serves me correctly, upon a cloud flanked by angels playing harps and weeping. Around the same time, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold were promoted from the reserve team and Andy Robertson was plucked from an obscure team on the river Humber. Suddenly, Liverpool had the best defence in the league, if not Europe. We had centre-halves with the pace and the nous to play on the halfway line and overlapping fullbacks from hell that made us look like a scorpion with two tails. The next two and a half years were a story of record-breaking success, and while Matip made for a decent squad player, it seems as if his day was over and his chance was gone. Or was it?
When the infamous defensive crisis of 20/21 hit, Liverpool lost their two treasured centre-backs. Having sold Dejan Lovren in the summer, there were only youth team players and Joel Matip to turn to. This was Matip’s chance to stamp down his authority and to shepherd the team through crisis, at a time when we were still league champions and in the running for both of the league and the Champions League. It had been said that Matip was too injury prone to be relied upon. Now was his chance to prove us wrong.
Including the pre-season of 2020, Matip had already had four separate spells on the sidelines before Christmas. On the 29th of December, he picked up a groin strain. Nerves were already fraught and when Matip limped off the pitch, Anfield – already devoid of supporters – fell quieter than a giraffe’s funeral. He missed four games but on his return match away to Tottenham he made an important tackle against Heung-Min Son and picked up the ankle injury that would rule him out for the rest of the season. There was one day left in the transfer window – just enough time for the club to bring in Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak as late cover but the Joel Matip era it seemed was well and truly over. He had failed on the biggest stage, blown his chance, let the side down.
This summer, during the usual transfer hysteria, sacrificial names were offered forward in order to raise funds to bring in a world-class attacking player. With the purchase of Ibrahima Konate and the near-cult status of Nat Phillips, it seemed as though our central defence was sorted. Matip was to be sold. On one reliable forum, it was suggested that offers would be listened to in the region of £5 million. Matip had indeed saved us millions – but only five of them it appeared.
No offers came in for Matip in the summer and so Liverpool now had a new defensive crisis – too many top-class centre-halves. Konate had been brought in as the first choice companion to Van Dijk, and Gomez and Phillips were fan favourites. So where was Matip going to fit in in all of this? The answer, surprisingly, was in the starting line-up on our opening game of the season against Norwich. Watching that game, it seemed perhaps Matip felt he had a point to prove – a note of contrition for failing to step up in the previous season. He played with determination, guile, and an aggression that perhaps had been lacking in his previous outings.
As the season progressed, this became a familiar thread and his performance level never dropped. By four games into the season, during our away game at Leeds United, Joel Matip looked simply undroppable and unrecognisable. If he had been playing all season with a fake glasses-nose-and-moustache disguise and we had been told he was a brand new £75 million signing named Jim O’Petal, fans would have been purring about our new Irish bespectacled centre-half and how you just need to spend big sometimes to bring in quality. He had always been a ball carrier, but now he was striding out of defence with the purpose and intensity of Franz Beckenbauer giving Alan Hansen a piggyback.
Liverpool have been putting teams to the sword this season and it has come, ironically, as much from their renewed confidence in defence as the return to form of their star strikers. This has been in no small part due to the stunning form of Joel Matip. Konate got a chance against Manchester United and Matip was rested, perhaps due to the physicality of Cristiano Ronaldo. A five-nil win at Old Trafford meant that Konate deservedly kept his place against Brighton at home one week later. But once again Liverpool’s defence was in the headlines for the wrong reasons, blowing a two-goal lead and struggling at times to keep Brighton at bay. Matip was re-introduced for the home game against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool were once more imperious.
At times it has been the former Cameroon international who has been providing the leadership and reassurance that we are used to seeing from Van Dijk. You might even say that Matip is temporarily the senior member of that partnership, whilst the Dutchman recovers his confidence after his cruciate ligament injury. There appears to be no avoiding the conclusion that Joel Matip is getting better with age. How good will he be in another five years? He’s only thirty now. Centre-halves can often squeeze a few more years out of their limbs than midfielders or strikers. If the examples being set by Lewandowski, Messi, Milner, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic are anything to go by, there’s no reason why Matip can’t continue to make a contribution for several years to come.
I wonder if that bloke ever did get Matip on the back of his shirt. It doesn’t seem so laughable anymore. If Matip were to be sold right now his age might reduce his fee, but he is currently playing like a world-class centre-back. Jurgen Klopp has been proven correct. Joel Matip has genuinely saved us millions. But if there is a trophy at the end of the season, we will have our mild-mannered camelopardine defender to thank. And no-one can put a price on that.