Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock has said that Joel Matip makes Virgil van Dijk a better defender.
Following Liverpool’s hard-fought 1-0 victory over promoted side Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Saturday, Warnock talked about the pair in an interview with BBC Five Live, which was echoed by retired Chelsea and Leicester defender, Robert Huth.
🗣️ 'Matip makes Van Dijk a better player'
🗣️ 'Matip is just as good as Van Dijk'
🤔 Do you agree?
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) September 29, 2019
Joel Matip has been on the sidelines for most of his Liverpool career after signing for the club for free in the 2016/17 season from Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga. However, with inconsistent performances coupled with fitness issues surrounding those ahead of him in the pecking order, including Joe Gomez, Matip has stepped up to the podium and has now made the starting spot his own.
Warnock noted that Van Dijk’s game perfectly bounces off Matip’s own ability to read the gameplay of the opposition, in comparison to Gomez who relies on pace to do his defending which weakens Van Dijk’s game. Matip is also an excellent ball carrying defender who can use his runs to pull the opposition midfield and forward line out of position and into areas where they can’t press properly. Gomez, while pacier than the two, is less skilled at ball carrying.
This statement from Warnock puts to bed the myths that Van Dijk makes everything better at the back for Liverpool, which many have come to accept as true. While Van Dijk is an excellent defender and is one of Liverpool’s most consistent players, his best performances in his Liverpool career (and probably his whole career) have been when he has lined up alongside Matip in the heart of the Liverpool defence.
Matip has partnered Van Dijk in all but six matches across all competitions for Liverpool since January 19 and his form during that time has been impeccable. In the Premier League alone, the former Cameroon international ranks second at Liverpool in aerial duels won (77), tackles (43), blocks (9), clearances (96), headed clearances (58) and duels won (142). He stands out in intercepting opponents balls too, with a club-high 35 interceptions in this period.
When Matip is on the ball, he doesn’t exactly look comfortable. However, looks can be deceiving as Matip ranks third among Liverpool players for completed passes in the Premier League (1,176) since that aforementioned January date and has completed more dribbles than Van Dijk (five to three) who oozes class on the ball. (via Squawka)
Before the match against Sheffield United, Jurgen Klopp was asked about Matip’s development in the pre-match press conference. Klopp and had nothing but praise for the 28-year old, naming him as “one of the best pieces of business” he’s ever done – a reverberating statement especially as he was the brains behind the deals for Van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Klopp also noted that one of the things that kept Joel Matip out of the picture for a while was a lack of consistency, but quickly shifted the blame to the Cameroonian’s imposing stature (Matip stands at 6’5″), claiming that big men like he and Matip “don’t always look sensational” when they move.
Matip’s improvement is really understated. In his earlier days at Schalke and at Liverpool, Matip would rashly break his defensive lines and go tight with a striker. This caused him problems, especially at Liverpool as he often stepped out and didn’t win the ball. This error led to teams finding a way around him and exploiting the space which he afforded them in the defence line, and to Klopp benching him despite him being bought to be a starter.
However, on occasions when he wins the ball, it signifies the beginning of a smooth counter-attack for his team because of his ball-carrying ability.
Much like Van Dijk, Matip is comfortable and can play long passes over the top to Liverpool’s front three when needed. Both defenders are able to spot line-breaking passes to help Liverpool advance against teams who sit back and wait for Liverpool’s attack.
His weakness, however, is another boost for Van Dijk’s strengths. In events where Matip – who can now read the game better and calmly picks his time to break the lines to mark – Van Dijk fills up whatever gaps there are and makes the interception or the block a good percentage of the time. However, if Matip is able to completely remove this from his game and fully adopt zonal marking as Van Dijk does, starts to either be less aggressive in pressing strikers and/or win more of his duels with the striker, not only will teams struggle to find a weak point in the defence, but he will seize the narrative for himself.
The attributes comparison speaks for itself. Van Dijk has some catching up to do with Matip in terms of natural defending ability. Also, the comparison shows and evidence of Matip’s improvement on his weakness which used to be his tactical ineptitude when performing his defensive duties. This justifies Klopp’s belief in the Cameroonian, whose development he has championed since his breakout days at Schalke.
At 6’5″ tall, it is to be expected that Matip is going to play an integral role in set pieces for Liverpool both in attack and defence – particularly in defence.
In defending set-pieces, Klopp has set up Liverpool to operate a man-to-man and zonal marking system in which Matip occupies an important zone at the near post which often leads to him making clearances. This hinders the opposition’s ability to play the ball into a dangerous zone of the box, as teams will often look to avoid areas where these players are.
In attacking set-pieces, both Matip and Van Dijk serve as decoys due to their statures, but because of their prowess in the air, they get to the ball more easily than other players who are waiting for the ball inside the box.
Matip struggled with fitness in the early part of his Liverpool career, and this, coupled with his consistency issues, per Klopp. However, he has started to show a good run of form, which has sadly been overlooked.
Given their 100% record in the Premier League so far, it’s quite obvious that Liverpool have a multitude of weapons and shields at their disposal – their fearsome front three, the lung-busting efforts of Robertson and sheer quality of delivery from Alexander-Arnold.
But among all those, Matip stands tall as one of Klopp’s biggest weapons. The ex-Schalke man has played 107 games for Liverpool and is still only 28, which means he could be a staple in the Liverpool defence for a good number of years as the club looks to push for greater honours than just one Champions League title under Klopp.
Joel Matip is more than just Van Dijk’s sidekick and the world will soon know this.