Before the campaign kicked off, few Liverpool fans considered Joel Matip a first-choice starter – but the cult hero has revived his career and hit an elite level.
While the Dutchman has rightly made the headlines for an almost seamless return to the side, he has been greatly helped by the performances of his centre-back partner.
Matip faced questions over his future in the summer, after another frustrating season plagued by injuries and the arrival of Ibrahima Konate.
However, the former Cameroon international has silenced his doubters this term and is currently enjoying his best season in red – in terms of both fitness and form.
Liverpool may well have the best defender in the world in Van Dijk, but there are few, if any, centre-backs who are a better foil for the Dutchman than Matip.
Few on Merseyside have questioned Matip’s ability, but his biggest barrier to success in recent years has been staying fit.
However, 2021/22 has already seen him clock 2,596 minutes of football in 30 starts.
In the previous two seasons combined, the defender managed just 1,910 minutes across 22 starts and a further three substitute appearances.
In fact, Liverpool’s No. 32 is close to eclipsing his best-ever total since joining the club from Schalke in 2016.
The increased consistency in Matip’s playing time has allowed him to improve the level and consistency of his performances, with many areas of his game reaching new heights this season.
Doing the dirty work
Neither Matip nor Van Dijk are particularly active defenders, with the Reds’ high line designed to neutralise attacking threats through the offside trap rather than individual defensive actions.
Despite this, Matip has stood up to the task of being targeted by opposition teams who seek to avoid Liverpool’s No. 4.
So far, he has averaged 3.52 tackles and interceptions per 90 in the Premier League this season, with a tackle success rate of just over 76 percent – the highest percentage of Liverpool’s centre-backs.
The 30-year old also has more pressures per 90 (6.48) with a higher success rate (43.4%) than his centre-back partner and has also recorded more blocks (1.33).
Furthermore, while Matip’s respectable aerial duel success rate of 69.3 percent is short of his best numbers, it still puts him in the 81st percentile of Premier League centre-backs this campaign.
None of this is to say that Matip has outperformed Van Dijk, but it highlights how he has had to deal with greater offensive attention due to being perceived as the weaker member of the duo.
This emphasises the huge role he has played in helping the Reds to 15 clean sheets in 27 league games.
The return of Van Dijk has been crucial for Jurgen Klopp’s defence, but it is important not to underestimate the importance of the return of Matip.
Hoping for the best or elite ball-carrier?
However, it is on the ball where Matip has really shone this season.
The defender’s mazy dribbles have become an eye-catching feature of Liverpool’s play and resulted in one of the most memorable goals of the season against Leeds.
While it may not always look graceful, Matip’s dribbling ability allows him to beat players and draw others out of position, creating space for the Reds’ attackers.
As Van Dijk has pointed out, it is another weapon in Liverpool’s arsenal. After the Leeds game he explained: “It’s a big strength of his and obviously it’s useful because it drags other players from their position.”
The numbers behind Matip’s runs clearly spell out his quality on the ball.
Matip leads the squad in progressive carries, with 9.10 per 90, which is almost two more per game than Mo Salah.
While some will point out that it is easier for a defender to bring the ball forward unchallenged, this statistic excludes carries in the defensive part of the pitch.
Matip also leads the way in progressive distance per 90 with 251.3 yards, almost 100 yards more than second-placed Thiago. Matip is even seventh in the squad for carries that enter the final third of the pitch (2.48).
Among other Premier League centre-backs this season, Matip is in the 98th percentile for progressive carries, progressive carrying distance and carries into the penalty area, while he is in the 99th percentile for carries into the final third.
While Van Dijk joked that Matip “hopes for the best a little bit” when he begins his runs, the numbers suggest that he is an elite ball-carrying centre-back.
Underrated passing ability
While Matip’s dribbling has attracted plenty of attention, one area of his game that is underappreciated is his passing ability.
While Van Dijk is rightly lauded for his ability to play pinpoint long-range passes, Matip attempts just slightly fewer long passes per 90 – 15.1 compared to 16.9 – and possesses a superior completion rate of 83.3 percent.
This number puts him in the 95th percentile of Premier League centre-backs.
Matip also makes more progressive passes (5.43) and passes into the final third (6.05) per 90 than Van Dijk and Konate and is in the top two percent and nine percent of Premier League centre-backs for these metrics.
Matip may be a larger-than-life personality and figure of fun both on and off the pitch, but it is his footballing ability that has shone through in 2021/22.
Here to stay?
His injury problems seemingly behind him for now, the centre-back has gone from strength to strength on the pitch, with his distribution and ball-carrying skills catching the eye.
Matip deserves huge credit for bouncing back from a lengthy layoff to prove the doubters wrong – and put together arguably his strongest run of form in a Liverpool shirt.
While Konate and Joe Gomez offer a bright future for Liverpool’s defence, few centre-back partnerships in Europe could challenge that of Van Dijk and Matip this season.