EVER since he was drafted in to replace the injured Ragnar Klavan against Spurs, Joel Matip has quietly and efficiently made the right centre-back slot his own at Liverpool.
That day in North London he coolly dealt with any potential problem Harry Kane posed and the Cameroon international – a free summer signing from Schalke – hasn’t looked back since.
Seasoned strikers might have fancied an easy ride against a defender new to the league and still yet to hit double figures in appearances in a red shirt. Yet that is far from being the case. Just ask Jamie Vardy, Diego Costa or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
All have a proven track record in front of goal. And yet none of the three were able to get into their stride against Liverpool as Matip continued to harry, harass and show maturity beyond his 25 years.
Some will have quietly muttered concerns when Matip, quizzed on his forthcoming switch to Anfield in the summer, said back in July: “I am ready for it but I also have work to do on my body. This is another league, so I have to work on my body to play in the Premier League. To be physically strong [enough] for the Premier League.
“Of course, the Bundesliga is at a high level. Maybe it’s a different level, but it’s also a high level and I think I have got enough to play here.
“I decided for myself [to focus on strength training], but I think [the coaching staff] will help me reach this level and to be fit for the new season.”
Not another defender requiring the dreaded “bedding in” time. Not another player too easily bullied.
We need not have worried, it seems. As so far Matip’s defending has been as cool as his media interviews, which, for those that have missed them, have oozed sense and sensibility.
Matip was born in Bochum, Germany to a German mother and a Cameroonian father, which has allowed him to secure Cameroonian citizenship.
He was at the VFL Bochum academy before making the move to Schalke at the age of nine. He spent most of his time plying his trade for Schalke’s youth team, before making his professional debut for their second team in the fourth tier of German football at the age of 18.
His first Bundesliga appearance came as a defensive midfielder, against none other than Bayern Munich. Yet the size and stature of the opposition didn’t seem to affect Matip, as he scored the equaliser and was subsequently named man of the match.
After that, he went on to make 258 appearances for the Gelsenkirchen side, scoring 23 goals. He only received two red cards during his time at Schalke, one of which was rescinded on appeal, a further sign of the cool head he possesses on the pitch.
He won his first cap at international level just a few months after his first Bundesliga appearance and has since gone on to make 27 appearances for Cameroon.
However, he has made just one appearance since playing the whole 90 minutes against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup group stages, and that came in June 2015 in an African Cup of Nations qualifier.
There seem to be a number of reasons for Matip’s exile from the national team. Some of them appear to be self-imposed, with the player instead choosing to focus on club matters and looking to avoid injuries and travelling. But the Cameroon manager Hugo Broos has also previously chosen not to select Matip, citing an apparent lack of motivation to represent his country.
His latest revelation, that he intends to stay in Liverpool and not take part in the upcoming African Cup of Nations, shouldn’t come as a huge surprise then.
Despite an up and down international career, Matip does have further experience outside the domestic leagues, making 46 appearances in Europa League and Champions League matches for Schalke.
It’s a pedigree that prompted many experts seemed to suggest that Matip’s value in the transfer market would be close to the £20million mark had Liverpool tried to tempt him to Anfield mid-contract.
And now, while it’s still early in his Liverpool career, it prompts memories of past bargain buys at centre-half, including the legend Sami Hyypia, plucked from relative obscurity at Dutch side Willem II for just £2.5m – an undisputed bargain given the success that came over the following 10 years.
It’s too early to make comparisons in terms of achievement between Hyypia and Matip but there are definitely some likenesses in the way they play.
Hyypia was a great reader of the game, despite not being blessed with the greatest pace. He also towered over most and was dominant in the air. All of which could easily be said of Matip, who also seems to share the same quiet confidence of the Finn.
Sky Germany’s Kristian Sommer said this to the ECHO after it was announced that Matip had agreed to join the Reds back in February: “He will need to get used to the ‘kick and rush’ aspect of the English game, as his major weakness used to be that he is not the quickest, but he always made that up because of his excellent positional play.”
Matip has hardly come from nowhere as Hyypia did – Schalke are a well-known team in Europe and as previously mentioned have been regulars in European competition. But that, in essence, is testament to Matip’s ability and makes the fact that Liverpool signed him on a free all the more impressive.
So where has it all gone right for Matip?
After too long watching the up and down performances of an on-edge Martin Skrtel, Matip’s calmness and comfort with the ball has won him early admirers, but there is an iron fist in the velvet glove, too. Matip has used his body strength to good effect and isn’t scared of the rough stuff when it comes to ensuring he wins his battles.
He possesses a great aerial threat, with his height and his ability to leap, and has been close on several occasions to getting his first goal in a red shirt. You imagine it won’t be long before he gets off the mark – that’s if anybody can actually beat the first man from a corner.
However, it is definitely worth returning to the quality he possesses on the ball. He isn’t afraid to carry the ball out of defence, something we haven’t seen done well since the early days of Daniel Agger. He can pick a pass as well and is constantly looking for a through ball to start an attack.
His stats are testament to this. He’s currently averaging 56.7 passes per game – the fifth best in the Liverpool squad – with a success rate of 87.6 per cent. Not to mention his 3.7 long balls per game, a signal of the intent he shows to get the team on the front foot.
He’s slightly unorthodox, though much less so than Mamadou Sakho, whose absence has become much less of an issue following Matip’s early showings.
Not too much fuss has been made over his decision to avoid the African Cup of Nations but already that looks a huge boost.
Matip’s positivity, in terms of trying to push the team up the pitch, has already become an important asset and another weapon the Reds can use to cut teams open.
Against Manchester United, he dealt with the threat of Ibrahimovic and the long balls from Jose Mourinho’s defensively-obsessed side well. He rarely allowed the Swedish striker to get a clean touch of the ball and seemed to be on top in battling for the ball.
It was the same at Chelsea. Playing against Costa isn’t for the weak-minded. Everybody knows the quality, in terms of footballing ability as well as shithousery, that the Chelsea striker possesses but Matip paid him no attention. He just wasn’t arsed with anything but winning the ball and winning the match.
In fact, prior to that game, he told The Telegraph: “If an opponent tries to talk to me during the game, really, I don’t give a fuck. They can say what they want.”
Even in the case of the self-lusting Ibrahimovic, he said beforehand: “You cannot always look on one player. You can’t think ‘he is the big famous guy’. The other players are good too so you have to defend against them all.”
He just gets the job done.
In an interview with Sky Sports last year, German reporter Torben Hoffmann said: “He is a good defender. He’s young and will make the next step under Jürgen Klopp.
“He’s not currently at the level of the best defenders in Germany. But after these top guys he’s in the next group. The big point is Jürgen has known him for five or six years, has played a lot against Schalke, and knows his strengths.”
The big point: Jürgen knows him. So far that knowledge looks to have fed an excellent decision to sign him and now another one to start him.
At 25, and with further experience of England and greater understanding with team-mates to come, you suspect he will only get better.
What price Joel Matip then? What price Joel Matip now? October is no time for big statements but continue like this and Matip could be the bargain buy of the season.