Joel Matip has now been a Liverpool player for five years and, while showing he is a quality defender, he still has a lot to prove after injuries besieged his Anfield career.
Having arrived on a free transfer from Schalke on July 1, 2016, there was genuine excitement over the arrival of the 6’4 defender after the backline Jurgen Klopp inherited continued to crumble.
With pace and a presence in both boxes, Matip represented a fresh look as the German’s evolution at Anfield got underway.
However, it didn’t take long to be given a glimpse at what was to come, with injury having threatened his ability to partake in the pre-season tour of the US just weeks after his arrival.
Ultimately, he would navigate his debut campaign with only one injury setback and feature 32 times, his second-highest season appearance tally behind 2017/18 – when he played 35 games.
Despite his highest numbers, he still showed a frailty that was cause for concern, with a thigh injury at the end of November 2017 sending his Anfield career on a frustrating trajectory.
Glimpses of the player he could be – calm on the ball, a strong presence and with an eye for a pass – would be heavily outweighed by the lack of consistent time on the pitch.
In 2018/19 there would be 26 starts for Matip, and in the two years combined thereafter, just 22 – all of which lends itself to a tally of 123 games played out of a possible 265 since he arrived.
That amounts to just 46 percent of matches.
Of course, no player wishes to find themselves in that position and it will be as equally frustrating for Matip to see his body fail him and succumb to one injury after the other.
It has seen his standing in the side continually shift, most notably when he ousted Joe Gomez at the end of 2018/19 and showed early promise in continuing in the same vein of form in 2019/20 – where strong defending was met with attacking prowess.
Then came a knee injury, followed by toe, thigh problems, back trouble, a groin strain and most recently an ankle ligament injury that would prematurely end his 2020/21 season.
It doesn’t make for good reading for the player who turns 30 before the new season beings and who now finds his task to simply remain as an available option for Klopp more often than he is not.
Joel Matip’s Season Starts
- 2016/17: 30 (all comps)
- 2017/18: 31
- 2018/19: 26
- 2019/20: 11
- 2020/21: 11
It all lends itself to a decisive season ahead, where Liverpool will be looking to carefully manage their centre-back department after the three senior options they started last season with all sustained long-term injuries.
Out of action since the end of January, Matip will have not seen a competitive action in seven months by the time the new season rolls around and his pre-season foundations will be key.
“The only thing is we have kind of the timeframe and he will be back for pre-season,” Klopp said back in February.
“That’s great, then he’s had enough time, in all the things, then finally could settle and have enough time to work on the specific things which will make him even stronger for the future.”
The key phrase there is “stronger for the future,” as while it is near on impossible to avoid the unlucky contact injuries in a match, preventative work off the pitch is clearly to dominate Matip’s schedule.
There has been little suggestion of any plans to offload Matip, whose contract runs until 2024, but patience is certainly wearing thin as to his medium to long-term future at Anfield.
And now five years on from arriving at Liverpool, there is time to make up for when the Reds kickstart the new season with himself, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konate as the four key components at the heart of the defence.
It means much will still be asked of him while trust will continue to waver over his fitness, but there is no doubting his quality when available to Klopp and his troubles have certainly made him an underrated figure.
The Reds will need him as they compete across four competitions and look to be reunited with some silverware and having not featured in over half of Liverpool’s games since arriving, there’s plenty of doubters to prove wrong – and there’s no time like the present.