12th May 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
Although Liverpool couldn't overcome Claude Puel's disciplined and well organised Southampton outfit on the weekend, drawing 0-0, the performance of centre-back, Joel Matip, was one of the most positive aspects of the afternoon from the Reds' perspective.
Continuing his strong debut season, that's seen him grow into an integral component of Jurgen Klopp's plans, the languid stopper hardly put a foot wrong throughout. Dealing with Southampton's silky skilled centre forward, Manolo Gabbiadini, is never an easy task, but Matip made short work of the Italian, using his athleticism, physicality and intelligence to limit his impact.
Whenever the former Napoli and Sampdoria whizz dropped deep, Matip followed him vigorously, never giving him a chance to turn, while showing his fine judgement to chime in with vital interceptions to nip in before the ball had even arrived at Gabbiadini's feet. Executing these actions with such force and conviction demonstrated his willingness to make life as difficult as possible for his marker, in a match where he blanketed his adversary comfortably.
With Liverpool enjoying 65% of the possession, Matip's role was just as important in the attacking phase of the game, with the Bochum born defender playing a vital role in building his team's passing moves from the back.
From his right sided central defensive station, he made great use of the areas available to him in the right half space due to the Saints' desire to drop back into a mid-low block 4-5-1 shape. Seeing as Soton's left winger and left sided central midfielder, Sofiane Boufal and James Ward-Prowse, were unwilling to leave the block, Matip was able to dribble forward freely into Liverpool's attacking half.
Once he reached the opposition midfield line, the aim was then to provoke a press from an opponent to create space in behind them for Liverpool's more advanced players to utilise. Although he did this on some occasions, he could've been more aggressive with his dribbling and attacked the away side more vehemently. Instead, he usually opted to play a simple, more cautious pass to Lucas Leiva or Emre Can and give them the responsibility of creating something.
In addition, upon noticing Liverpool's midfielders and attackers using their energetic, interchangeable movement, which pinned and pushed back Southampton's line deeper, Matip was certainly given a fine opportunity to be more direct with his dribbles and get into further advanced locations. Despite this slight criticism, he still had a strong influence in their possession play.
Moreover, his occupation of the right half space was also beneficial when Liverpool were looking to recycle the ball from the left flank as his positioning meant he could be found via a switch quicker than if he was situated up against the touchline.
His positioning supplied structural stability to his team too, for it ensured Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool's right-back, had a solid platform to push forward in the knowledge Matip had the areas behind him covered in case of a turnover.
Dominant in the air, physically imposing and impactful on both sides of the ball, Matip's display showcased precisely why Jurgen Klopp was so desperate to sign a player of his calibre in the summer. The fact he was acquired on a free transfer unquestionably makes him one of the most astute signings of the season.
Even though he's adapted to the Premier League rather smoothly, the man who joined Liverpool after 16 years with Schalke still admits it's been a challenge to adjust to the demands of English football. "It might sound like a cliche, but it's just more physical in Premier League, especially those teams from the bottom third where real 'bulls' are flying into the box. It's a different kind of rigorousness," Matip insisted.
He then added: "We know that we have to improve our defence. But it's also the style of play, which makes it difficult in England.
"It's up and down all the time, and the tactical systems sometimes go to pieces. You are vulnerable, and you especially see that with teams like us who are strong going forward. But thank God we also score the most goals."
Having now played 30 games in all competitions this term, the experience and knowledge the 195cm colossus has gained throughout the campaign will surely be crucial for the years ahead at Anfield.
Still aged just 25 and with plenty of room for improvement working under Klopp's proven methods, you get the feeling Matip will be a key figure at the Reds for many more years to come yet.
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Joel Matip will be a key player at Liverpool for years to come
12th May 2017. By Edward Stratmann.