Why the understated Joel Matip serves as an inspiration to his Liverpool team-mates
"Not a lot of people spoke about the impact Joel Matip had in the last third of the season," Jurgen Klopp told reporters during Liverpool's pre-season tour of the United States. "I don't see a lot of centre-backs in the world who are better in that period, 100 per cent, pretty much without any mistakes."
The manager's praise for his No.32 came unprompted, and in response to a question about Matip's defensive partner Virgil van Dijk. It’s a huge testament to his unassuming rise.
The 28-year-old began last season by taking up the role vacated by Ragnar Klavan after the Estonian's £2 million move to Cagliari – an experienced, uncomplaining fourth choice behind Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren. But by the campaign's end, Matip had established himself as one of the first names on Klopp's teamsheet. Twenty starts from a possible 26 in the second half of the season underlined this, compared with just six of 27 games from August to the end of December.
His campaign ended with an assist in the Champions League final, when he confidently touched a high ball down for Divock Origi to smash home and bring Europe’s biggest trophy back to Merseyside. The pair became cult heroes in Madrid, with Matip's mazy dribbles from back to front routinely shared across social media.
Like Origi, however, the centre-back had been considering his future less than a year earlier. But he didn’t give up so easily. While hinting that he could seek pastures new at the end of the season, Matip stressed in November that “you have to work hard and sometimes that means waiting for your chance”.
“I’ve got to wait for my opportunity, I have to work hard,” he said in his mission statement, after a four-month spell that brought just 275 minutes on the pitch over eight appearances. “This is the life of a player. I try to be in the best form I can be and to be ready if I have to be.”
Five of those 275 minutes came across five games. Matip, described by Klopp ahead of his free transfer from Schalke in 2016 as “really rare”, had been relegated to the role of last-minute substitute as Liverpool settled into their new position as master controllers; the Cameroonian's introductions were designed to shore up the backline and help withstand any late barrages.
And then came his breakthrough. Gomez suffered a broken leg, and Lovren became increasingly unreliable after his exertions at the World Cup. Matip was handed his big opportunity soon after, thrusted back into Klopp's starting lineup, and – bar seven games out due to a fractured collarbone suffered in the last minute of a valiant display against Napoli in December – thrived with his new responsibility.
Speak to those who have come into contact with Matip on a professional level and it becomes clear that he is a character at his best out of the spotlight. Interviews with the 6ft 4in defender are monosyllabic at times, and while his English is perfect, challenging questions are often batted away with one-line answers. He's a journalist's nightmare, and this now jars with his status as one of world football's leading centre-backs. But neither he nor Klopp would have it any other way.
With Matip free of the Messianic proclamations that ensure Lovren's every misstep is pored over, and working in the looming shadow of Van Dijk, he is able to operate quietly but effectively. The 28-year-old has got over his struggles with the physicality of English football, and since crystallised the qualities that earned him a hero's farewell from Schalke's Nordkurve three years ago.
Tall, strong, quick and adept with the ball at his feet, Matip has adjusted to Klopp's demands at the back. It’s telling that he's now in line for a new contract as he continues to keep Gomez out of Liverpool's first XI – the inverse of his situation this time last year. Lovren finds himself on the periphery, looking for an exit. Van Dijk has hailed his partner’s form as "unbelievable", and there’s no doubt that the Dutchman is more comfortable alongside Matip than the erratic Croatian.
The belief is that an extension to Matip's stay at Anfield is now a formality, and that when he puts pen to paper it will vindicate his trust in the process. Just like Origi, whose own story tracks from a proposed loan spell with Wolves to goals against Barcelona and Tottenham in the Champions League, it will serve as an inspiration to those currently on the outside looking in at Liverpool.
Xherdan Shaqiri, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and James Milner can all take heart from the situation, as can youngsters such as Curtis Jones, Rhian Brewster, Harvey Elliott, Ki-Jana Hoever, Yasser Larouci and Paul Glatzel. Their roles may not currently match their ambitions, but Matip's rise is proof that – with a measure of fortune – Liverpool’s fringe players can work their way back in from the cold under Klopp.
The manager's decision not to strengthen the Reds’ squad this summer highlighted his faith in the current group. And while the majority of key roles in Klopp’s side are cemented at this point, there will be stages throughout the season when those waiting patiently will be relied upon.
“At the start of the season without intensity, you try to get rhythm, you try to get stability at the beginning,” the German explained in August, acknowledging that there will be those among his squad who believe they “don't play enough”.
“It's not a moment where you change too many things. It will happen automatically, and in the next [few] weeks you have to [change things] and everything will be fine then. It's not the hardest thing to do.
“The boys know what they have to do – they have to be in the best shape they can be. They have to use that to achieve their level, and the chances will come. That's how it is.”
The challenge is clear: understand the situation, maintain patience and take opportunities when they arise. It’s exactly what Matip achieved in the second half of 2018/19, and he now stands as a role model to those currently out of the picture.
While you're here, why not take advantage of our brilliant subscribers' offer? Get 5 issues of the world's greatest football magazine for £5 – the game's greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than a pint in London. Cheers!