Just ask Joel Matip, the sluggish Liverpool center-back, who is currently playing the greatest football of his career, 12 months after an injury-plagued season that wrecked his and virtually the entire season for the club.
Last year, Jurgen Klopp’s bruised champions were on the verge of producing one of the worst championship defenses in Premier League history, following a never-before-seen run of six consecutive home league defeats, prompting speculation that the German was poised to leave Anfield.
The arrival of Joel Matip and the transformation of Liverpool’s defense
The defense, if you can call it that, was a shadow of the backline that had formed the cornerstone of the club’s first top-flight title in 30 years in 2019-20, with midfielders frequently having to fill in.
Matip, who was Klopp’s first-ever signing after joining Liverpool on a free transfer from Schalke in the summer of 2016, had a dismal season, with injuries limiting him to only 10 league appearances.
All of this comes after his previous two seasons, both of which were trophy-laden for the club, were cut short by a series of untimely knee and ankle injuries, with Matip appearing in only 32 Premier League games throughout that time.
So much so that some wondered if the defender, now in his 30s and competing for a starting spot with young France central defender Ibrahima Konate (acquired from RB Leipzig last summer), even had a future at Anfield this season.
The statement by Joel Matip on the games ahead
Only Chelsea and the champions have scored a first-half goal against the Reds in the Premier League this season, while Matip has been part of a backline that has allowed just 22 top-flight goals in total, second only to Man City.
So, what’s the key to their defensive solidity returning this campaign?
It’s the whole team, starting with the offense and how they put pressure on the guys, it’s simply the whole team and how we defend, Matip said ahead of the Merseyside derby, which will be broadcast live on Sky Sports Premier League this weekend.
They’re progressing, which is good, and are making a lot of teams uncomfortable. He added
And, while he is far too modest to admit it, the return of an injury-free Matip to the backline.
What makes Liverpool great apart from the goals by Joel Matip?
However, it is not just Joel Matip’s goals that have been causing a stir at Anfield, but also his now-famous dribbles out of defense, which has frequently split open opposing defenses – as seen recently when he set up Luis Diaz for the opener at Brighton and then again during the move that put the Reds 2-0 up over Man Utd at Anfield on Tuesday night with one of the season’s best team goals.
As Klopp’s first signing as Liverpool manager, Matip is in a unique position to assess how good this current season is in comparison to the 2018-19 Champions League winners or the Premier League champions the next season.
Joel Matip, a German-born defender whose life recently transformed following the birth of his first kid Nathan – after the remains a cult figure on the Anfield terraces, even more so after his much-discussed celebrations following Liverpool’s Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea at Wembley in February.
With six games remaining, any slip-up now will almost certainly decide the title race, but this has been the case for Liverpool since slipping 14 points behind City in mid-January.
It’s been a win-at-all-costs mindset, or, as Klopp has told his players before every Premier League match, ‘act as if this is the last game you’ll ever play.’