Joel Matip’s ACL injury: A sad end to uniquely brilliant Liverpool success story?
The news of Joel Matip’s season-ending ACL injury brought sadness to all at Liverpool, with the question of ‘what comes next’ now left to be answered.
By Jack Lusby, ThisIsAnfield.com
Jürgen Klopp already feared the worst, but the scans went on to prove it: Joel Matip ruptured his ACL in a routine challenge during Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Fulham, with surgery ruling him out for the rest of the season.
It is a major blow to player and club, with the centre-back starting 14 games for the Reds this season and clocking the eighth-most minutes of any player prior to his injury. With Ibrahima Konate’s fitness being managed amid ongoing hamstring issues and Joe Gomez needed at full-back, Matip stepped up as a key presence.
But beyond the impact on the current campaign, there is an added poignancy to this long-term layoff, as with his contract due to expire in the summer, there is now every chance Matip has already played his final game for the club.
“I feel very sorry for him and his family, It hurts for all of us,” was captain Virgil van Dijk’s response to the news. “Joel is a fantastic player and has been for so many years. As a friend, it’s difficult to see. Knowing what he will go through now, the next weeks, months, it’s tough.”
Matip’s time at Anfield predates the transformative signing of Van Dijk from Southampton, with the long-serving No. 32 at the opposite end of the scale when it comes to outlays – but, though his impact has been less heralded, he has been similarly important.
A free transfer from Schalke in 2016, the deal to bring Matip to Merseyside was in the works from the first weeks of Klopp’s reign. The Bochum-born defender had been at Schalke for 16 years, rising through their academy – and scoring on his Bundesliga debut against Bayern Munich – to become a stalwart of not only the Gelsenkirchen side, but of German top-flight football.
Securing his services on a pre-contract agreement was widely viewed as a coup for Liverpool, with Kolo Toure on his way out and Martin Skrtel to follow, but few could have predicted him to develop into one of the biggest bargain signings in the club’s entire history.
Having lifted the DFB-Pokal and DFL-Supercup with Schalke – the German equivalent of the FA Cup and Community Shield – Matip has gone on to win everything there is to win with Liverpool: the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. Though he missed out due to injury, the Club World Cup can still be considered among his honours.
Up to the point of his injury, Matip was one of only 19 players throughout Klopp’s managerial career – with Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool – to play 200 or more times for the legendary coach. Only 11 players have made more appearances for Klopp’s Liverpool. Van Dijk (21,095) is the only centre-back to clock more minutes than Matip (16,225), with Gomez (12,835) a distance behind as next-closest.
Though Van Dijk’s pairings with Konate and Gomez may have been more popular, Matip has arguably been the Dutchman’s most consistent and effective partner. His style may be unorthodox, his spindly frame a stark contrast to the muscular builds of his fellow centre-backs, but Matip has been central to Klopp’s system at Liverpool. His dominance in the air is matched by his composure with the ball at his feet, while his dribbles out from the back – often, including as he scored an iconic goal against Leeds, spanning one penalty area to the other – have given Klopp a unique threat to employ.
Even in his eighth and what had long been expected to be final season on Merseyside, Matip defied suggestions that his lack of physicality would be a flaw in Liverpool’s new system to resume duties as first-choice starter.
But Matip, his manager, his team-mates and his employers are now left to ponder what comes next.
Firstly, the focus will be on a successful surgery to get the player in the right position to recover fully, as both Van Dijk and Gomez have in the past. While he will be given the full support of experts at the AXA Training Centre, Matip is likely to undergo the first months of his rehabilitation away from the club, with warm-weather recovery often preferred.
On the pitch, Klopp still has a clutch of top-level centre-backs and one elite prospect to call upon in the 32-year-old’s absence. Konate will be required to start regularly alongside Van Dijk, with Gomez offering rotational cover along with the upcoming Jarell Quansah. The return to fitness of Conor Bradley, who will be given increasing exposure as Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deputy at right-back, should free Gomez up to return to his natural role – as will the eventual return of Andy Robertson at left-back, following a long-term shoulder injury.
The rapidly approaching January transfer window may lead to calls for another centre-back to be brought in, but the likelihood is that Liverpool will not make a knee-jerk reaction, with Nat Phillips appearing a more feasible emergency fifth choice upon the end of his half-season loan at Celtic.
But there will long have been plans in place for the Reds to recruit another defender given Matip’s contract situation, and targets will be continually assessed.
A tough decision could also be presented to those within the club’s hierarchy of whether to, in fact, grant Matip an extension beyond the deal that currently expires on July 1. It would not be the first time Liverpool have done so for a player sidelined by long-term injury, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain signing a new contract in 2019 to effectively make up for time lost due to a serious knee injury.
Whether that is the right decision from a playing perspective is up for debate – and the signs were that Liverpool were already preparing for life without him – but sense may make way for sentiment in this case, to allow Matip to spend a year finding his feet again and rebuilding a career which, though largely underrated, would be the envy of any player.
(Images from IMAGO)
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