How Joel Matip is helping Liverpool overcome their frailties in defence
"Very often my teams have lost games like this," Jurgen Klopp reflected after Liverpool's 0-0 draw on Saturday – and Reds fans could certainly identify with the sentiment. "We didn't because we stayed concentrated – it's maybe the most important thing for us. Joel and Dejan did really well."
Liverpool could certainly have won at St Mary's, but as Klopp said: in seasons gone by it's a game they might well have found a way to lose.
Too many times the Reds have been tripped up like that in the past – if the attack wasn't firing on all cylinders, the defence looked capable of descending into farce at any moment. Exhibit One: Dejan Lovren's ham-fisted attempts to control a football at home to West Ham last season (first he fell over, then he gifted it straight to the opposition and they scored). Exhibit Two: the entire Liverpool career of Alberto Moreno.
In 2013/14, the Reds' suspect rearguard cost them the title – they conceded 50 goals, 13 more than champions Manchester City. That season they netted 101 times – and with the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané in their line-up, Liverpool will score plenty this time around too. Their title hopes, then, rest on their defence.
That's where Joel Matip becomes pretty significant. Liverpool's back four hasn't changed dramatically since last season – moving James Milner to left-back has been effective but was never likely to result in Klopp unearthing the next Paolo Maldini; it was merely the most convenient way to decommission Moreno's travelling circus.
Matip, in contrast, was signed to be Klopp's defensive lynchpin, and he was exactly that at Southampton. The Cameroonian marshalled Charlie Austin expertly as Saints failed to register a single shot on target in a Premier League game for the first time since 2004.
Matip has now started 10 league games for Liverpool, and they've conceded only nine goals in that time. He didn't feature in the 4-3 win at Arsenal on the opening day, or the 2-0 defeat at Burnley six days later. Matip was swiftly drafted into central defence, and the Reds haven't lost since.
King of positional play
Perhaps the most intriguing statistic on Saturday was that Matip didn't attempt a single tackle. Not one.
The reason was that he never needed to: the 25-year-old was known during his Bundesliga days as a man who rarely picked up yellow cards, because he had the anticipation and speed to be in the right position in the first place.
He's been booked only once this season, and has picked up 32 cards over 274 club appearances. Lovren, in comparison, has picked up 67 cards in 304 games, and attempted three tackles at St Mary's. Matip's style is reminiscent of that once employed by Ledley King, who was staggeringly booked only nine times in his entire career.
Matip's positional skills were very much on display against Southampton. On two occasions in particular, he was in the right place at the right time to snuff out dangerous moves with crucial interceptions. The 6ft 5in defender was dominant in the air, too, winning eight aerial duels – the only two he lost were in the opposition penalty area.
All the time, he carried out his duties with a supreme calmness, which may just be bringing out the best in his central defensive partner Lovren as well. If Simon Mignolet often transmitted panic to those around him before he was replaced in goal by Loris Karius, in central defence Matip is doing the opposite.
Top of the list
It's becoming very clear now why Klopp made Matip his first major signing as Liverpool boss. The Reds agreed a pre-contract for the defender in February – Klopp had only recruited Serbian youngster Marko Grujic up to that point.
The German would have signed Matip years earlier, had it not been for one problem: Klopp was manager of Borussia Dortmund, and Matip played for their fierce local rivals Schalke. Such a transfer would have been almost impossible to pull off, so instead the boss put him top of his shopping list for his next club – even before he knew that would be Liverpool.
"Klopp told me that when he was at Dortmund, he always said that when he was at another club, he would buy Matip," Emre Can revealed recently. In the end, Klopp didn't have to buy him at all – he simply had to wait until Matip's Schalke contract expired in the summer, and bring him to Anfield on a free. Result.
Old role paying dividends
For much of Matip's early career, he didn't actually play in the centre of defence – he was a holding midfielder, and the skills he picked up there were also evident at St Mary's.
Matip is clearly comfortable on the ball, bringing it forward calmly, and patiently picking out the right pass. Often, he's content for that pass to be the simplest available. Against Southampton he linked up frequently with sitting midfielder Jordan Henderson, playing 14 passes to the England man and receiving 18 from him in return. Ten passes went to Lovren, 10 to right-back Nathaniel Clyne.
In total, Matip attempted a hefty 84 passes, completing 69. Many of those passes were square – Matip isn't attempting to be Franz Beckenbauer or Ronald Koeman because his distribution skills aren't quite in that league, but he gets moves started simply and effectively.
Out of Africa
The good news is that while Liverpool are likely to lose Senegal international Mané to the Africa Cup of Nations in January, Matip looks set to stay put.
He already has 27 caps for Cameroon after choosing to represent them over Germany, the country of his birth – his cousin is former Middlesbrough and Indomitable Lions striker Joseph-Desire Job. (In fact, the Liverpool man's full name is Joel Andre Matip Job.) His older brother Marvin, a midfielder with Bundesliga side Ingolstadt, has also represented Cameroon.
But both Joel and Marvin are currently in a self-imposed international exile. "I called Joel 15 times and I even sent him messages, but he never responded," Cameroon boss Hugo Broos said recently, presumably while hatching a plan to dress up as Batman and scale the Anfield roof with a massive placard saying 'I LOVE YOU JOEL, PLEASE COME BACK!' Yes, that should get his attention.
Cameroon's loss could undoubtedly be Liverpool's gain, though. Without Matip, you sense that Liverpool might struggle to keep the clean sheets necessary to challenge the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea for the title. With him, well they might just have a chance.