Matip the right man to fill the Defensive leader role - by Jason Harris
The Liverpool defence. Those three words have Reds fans waking up in cold sweats the night before a game. As a supporter you want to be positive about all aspects about the team, but you know deep down that they are highly likely to concede one or more goals against any opposition.
While a number of areas of the Reds’ play have come on in leaps and bounds under Jurgen Klopp's tenure, the back four has been something of a black mark on the progression of the side.
This season has been one of utter frustration so far. The team has dominated countless games and looked threatening every time they enter the attacking third of the pitch, only to waste chances and then give away an incredibly soft goal at the other end, which saps all momentum that the team had built.
As all managers do, Klopp has staunchly defended his defensive unit whenever questioned about the troublesome area of the squad and has shown remarkable faith (some would call it blind faith) and patience in a couple of them.
This season we have seen Klopp rotate the back five due to the return of the Champions League. There are positives and negatives behind the strategy as it has given big game experience to youngsters like Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold. However the rotation of goalkeepers is something that is a bit of a head scratcher, especially for someone who needs his confidence constantly at a high level like Simon Mignolet.
One thing has become obvious over time and that is that the defence currently lacks a statesman type figure that takes the lead for others to follow, much in the way that Sami Hyppia and Jamie Carragher did so well in the last decade. There has been no defender to fill the sizeable breach since Carra retired, but I feel there is now someone who has some important qualities needed for the role.
Joel Matip is a player who has been a personal favourite since arriving at the club. The Cameroon international came to the club with little fanfare, joining on a free transfer from Schalke, but it was evident early on that he had some qualities which the defensive signings had lacked in the previous few years.
Watching Matip play throughout last season brought back memories of Hyppia. Both big Central Defenders have an incredible ability to read the play as well as a calmness, which is vital for someone who plays in such a vital position on the pitch.
There are a few slight differences between the two in that Matip has more technical ability with a bit more pace, while Sami made up for his lack of pace with a remarkable ability to position himself in the right spot at the right time, was quite a bit more physical and vocal, and made an artform of chipping in with important goals.
A few weeks ago I was incredibly fortunate enough to get a ticket to the game against Arsenal and it was a day I will never forget. While it was only my second time at Anfield, rather than taking snaps for the photo album (I saved that for the ground tour) I wanted to focus what was happening on the pitch and assess the players with this very rare opportunity.
The team turned on the style in a scintillating attacking performance, however when the Gunners had a brief window of promising play, it was Matip who was able to provide a vital block or able to put a foot in to break up the play and win the ball back for the home side. Naturally with the way that the Reds tore Arsenal apart Matip's performance was mostly overlooked, but for me it was up there with his best game for the club as he took it upon himself to impact a big match in a fashion a leader would do.
Around the time of that game, there was a possibility of the club signing Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton who together with Matip would have made a formidable pairing. As we know, the deal did not get over the line and in hindsight it was poor planning by the club to focus on one individual who played for a club that we had a fractious relationship rather than look at another available option.
For the most part, the partnership between Matip and Dejan Lovren has not clicked, despite both saying that they share a good relationship. Lovren is a player who has blown more cold than hot at his time with the club and it is somewhat of a surprise he has not been moved on, or at least consistently challenged for his position in the side.
While we are a great footballing side to watch when in full flow, there will be days when everything does not click and we have to grind out results and defend like our lives depended on it. It is not that we can't produce it when called upon to do so as we showed against Stoke, West Brom and Watford at the tail end of last season, but hypothetically speaking could we keep it tight in a tense second leg round of 16 clash in the Champions League? The jury is certainly out on that one.
It shapes as a big challenge for the 26 year-old, but I feel Matip has the credentials to be the leader of the defence for quite a few seasons to come. Having a rock solid partner beside him will give the back four a completely different feel, Matip's organisational qualities will be able to flourish and the defensive woes that the team has endured will be finally behind us.