Wednesday 16 October 2019

Chris Bascombe: Matip may be no Hansen but he's proving his worth alongside Van Dijk

Joel Matip. Photo: Getty Images
Joel Matip. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

There comes a point in Liverpool fixtures - and it happened in Saturday's laboured 1-0 victory against Sheffield United - when spectators are privileged to witness "the Joel Matip surge".

It usually occurs after about half an hour, the pattern established with 10 rival players pitching their tents in front of the penalty area.

Emboldened by the spirit of the young Franz Beckenbauer, Matip takes possession in the centre circle, identifies a path between two midfielders and picks up speed.

Despite the fact Matip has been prone to do this since last March, opposing midfielders appear so shocked they make little effort to stop him and the centre-half gets within 20 yards of goal.

That is where the story tends to end, with Matip running into congestion and grinding to a halt before poking a pass to the nearest passer-by in the same coloured shirt.

It is not, by Jurgen Klopp's admission, a work of beauty.

Not like one of those Virgil van Dijk diagonal passes, or lung-bursting Andy Robertson sprints.

Nobody feels compelled to get off their seat as Matip reaches shooting distance, nor watch with more than mild curiosity and the occasional hint of amusement.

The memory may be playing tricks, but Matip's clunky impersonations of prime-time Alan Hansen have yet to lead to a goal.

The weekly excursions from just inside his own half reveal more about Matip's positive state of mind, his renewed confidence alongside Van Dijk, and the dominance in possession of Klopp's team whereby his players have freedom within the system to explore every avenue to break through defences.

Only a player comfortable with the fact he is doing the day job to the highest level can feel empowered to take on a new in-game pastime of becoming a ball-playing, marauding centre-half.

Ask most around Anfield about how Liverpool would evolve this season and there was excitement surrounding the defensive pairing of Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, the England youngster possessing many qualities of the Dutch master.

Instead, Matip has made himself immovable, Saturday's victory extending a sequence going back to last season, when, if Liverpool's creative energy was sapped, they could at least rely on their robust qualities to drag them over the winning line.

Van Dijk, especially, seems to have an antenna for games such as Saturday's at Bramall Lane.

At around the 40-minute mark it was as if he had made his assessment, knew how much of a toil it was going to be in the attack zone and the command was sent out that under no circumstances would he or those around surrender a clean sheet. "You need to adapt in every game. It was totally different to what we had against Chelsea and I enjoy these different challenges," said the Dutchman.

So often he and Matip deliver, ensuring that while descriptions of victories like this as "lucky" are correct given the circumstances of Georginio Wijnaldum's winning goal, it happens too often for it to be solely down to chance.

Jordan Pickford and Hugo Lloris may be the first on the phone to Dean Henderson commiserating and sharing experiences of gifting Liverpool three points after goalkeeping errors.

Saturday's was the kind of win champions look upon at the end of a season, underline, mark with highlighter pen and say: "That is where we won it."

They were even handing out champagne to Klopp here, although not in premature celebration. Sheffield United's Chris Wilder recognised Klopp's recent Fifa Coach of the Year award, a classy gesture on an afternoon where it seemed Liverpool's coach met an unlikely kindred spirit, the pair sharing a post-match drink for 30 minutes. "They remind me of my Mainz team," Klopp said, referencing his first step into coaching. "It was like playing a wall."

Wilder may have said likewise about Liverpool's defence.

Van Dijk is the chief architect. Despite appearances when making his ungainly forward forays, Matip is proving equally sure-footed.

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