IT’S mad how even a game of football you convince yourself you aren’t arsed about can draw you in like that.
Make no mistake, winning that game meant everything until the final whistle blew. You wouldn’t catch many Liverpool supporters moping around after the fact, but they were right up for it as The Reds started to turn the screw towards the end.
The fact that the country’s – perhaps Europe’s – top two teams could only be separated by the lottery of penalties says everything about the tiny margins between the pair. One point. A matter of millimetres. A Kyle Walker bicycle kick.
It was Joel Matip’s goal that set up a tense ending, assisted by Virgil van Dijk, as Klopp found himself bringing Trent Alexander-Arnold off to add extra energy – and of course – solidity that an unleashed Joe Gomez brought at right back.
A lot has been said about who Liverpool should and shouldn’t be signing this summer, and you can make cases for a new recruit in most areas of the pitch if you try hard enough. However, centre half is starting to look like one position where Jürgen Klopp can consider himself particularly well stocked.
The fact that Gomez starting at centre half at Wembley came almost as a surprise says a lot about how much Matip and Dejan Lovren have come along during their time at Liverpool.
When Matip first arrived on a free from Schalke, it seemed a shrewd signing by The Reds. He was the fourth signing to be announced since Klopp’s appointment after Marko Grujic, Steven Caulker and Kamil Grabara, but the first serious first-team signing and the new boss’s first foray into the Bundesliga for transfers.
Matip came to Anfield with rave reviews from Germany. Schalke were sad to lose the player who had become a fan favourite, but was also a valued member of the squad – his place in the WhoScored Bundesliga team of the season for 2015-16 suggested that Liverpool had got themselves a steal.
He established himself so quickly in Liverpool’s team that his absence during a public fallout with the Cameroon national team was felt hard, as The Reds went out of both domestic cups and almost fell out of the race for the top four. It was no surprise therefore that Matip was ever present as Champions League qualification was secured on the final day.
But Matip’s time at Anfield hasn’t come without it’s challenges; his partnership with Lovren in particular came under some heavy scrutiny throughout 2017. Matip played 90 minutes in both the 5-0 loss to City and the infamous 4-1 loss to Spurs at Wembley which left supporters ruing missing out on signing Van Dijk in the summer.
Injury problems throughout the remainder of the 2017-18 season gave Lovren the chance to build a partnership with Van Dijk, and Matip became even more of an afterthought as Gomez made a flying start to the 2018-19. However, Matip eventually got chances to impress and did just that, with a goal at home to Southampton and a solid performance in the decisive Champions League group stage game against Napoli.
Matip crowned last season with an assist for Divock Origi’s goal which secured a sixth European Cup and managed to get himself on the scoresheet in the Community Shield. He’s gone from being one half of a much-maligned centre-back pairing to looking like a seriously strong option for The Reds.
The other half of the aforementioned partnership, Dejan Lovren, has had a rollercoaster of a time at Liverpool. Unlike Matip, Lovren joined in the summer of 2014 ahead one of the most disappointing campaigns in our recent history and he started to divide opinion fairly quickly.
High-profile errors and incessant injuries have made Lovren something of a scapegoat for The Reds’ defensive issues down the years, while his style of play and handling of the media has only added fuel to the fire.
At his best he’s a high-level, front foot centre half. At his worst he can be a sight for sore eyes.
However, you don’t have to think too hard to remember the good times for Lovren at Liverpool. There’s of course that night against Dortmund which will surely go down as his best contribution in a red shirt. There’s also the time he cleared the ball out of the stadium away at Swansea in 2016 as the clock ticked down with the score at 2-1.
His partnership with Van Dijk was crucial as The Reds reached the Champions League final in Kyiv, having recovered from a nightmare display marking Harry Kane against Spurs. Some supporters were quick to say that Van Dijk was the reason Lovren improved but it never felt as though the Croatian got much credit himself.
While he’s possibly Liverpool’s fourth-choice centre half heading into this season, there are definitely worse options to have than Degsy.
Who will be first choice alongside Virgil, though? Most would be pushing for Joe Gomez after witnessing his blossoming relationship with the Dutchman throughout last season. Up until his injury at Burnley, Gomez had been one of Liverpool’s standout performers but that absence did curtail his progress somewhat.
He looked like a man ready to make up for lost time against Manchester City though, as he seemed to be there to make a clearance every time the ball came into the box during City’s moments of pressure.
His eventual move to right back perhaps suggests that he will remain Klopp’s backup choice for that position, but there’s no reason he couldn’t make the right-sided centre-half spot his own in the meantime.
A lot has been said about whether Liverpool’s squad has the depth to match up to City’s, but The Reds certainly looked better stocked when it comes to centre-half options. Klopp will know he’s got a job on his hands to make sure they all get game time, but he’ll also know that’s a good problem to have.
It will also be interesting to see how having four talented centre backs affects the young lads Ki-Jana Hoever and new signing Sepp Van Den Berg.
Hoever appears to be versatile enough to play all across the backline and he may be seen as an option at left back if Andy Robertson and James Milner are simultaneously unavailable.
Van Den Berg may have wished his FIFA clearance came sooner so he could see more pre-season action, but you’d imagine Klopp and his staff will know what kind of player they’ve got on their hands from the training sessions they’ve seen him in.
While it was first viewed as a signing made for the future, the noises coming out of the club suggest that there is also a real chance of seeing Van Den Berg tearing up trees in the present. Perhaps he and Hoever could play a part in making sure Liverpool go further in the domestic cups this season.
All in all, Liverpool look like they’ve got the options to ensure their spine is as sturdy as can be. Some supporters may worry about the drop off when Van Dijk is absent, but you only have to look as far as Bayern Munich at home last season to see that there’s not much to fear in that regard.
That give us the potential Ballon D’or winner, two lads with experience playing for Liverpool on the biggest stages, one of the league’s breakout defensive talents and two Dutch starlets destined for big things.
It’s not just the future that’s bright for Liverpool, the present is promising too.
After all, attack wins you games and defence wins you titles, right?
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“Liverpool were outstanding in the second half.
“These are the two best teams in Europe.” 👏
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— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) August 4, 2019