Having only just returned from injury himself, Joel Matip has suddenly become pivotal for Liverpool as they prepare for a busy finish to 2020.
Matip is the last experienced centre-back left standing for the reigning Premier League champions, leaving him to take on the role of leader in a defence that has seen a slip in the lofty standards set during the title-winning season.
With Virgil van Dijk – an ever-present in the previous Premier League campaign – already a long-term absentee, Liverpool lost Joe Gomez to a serious injury while away on England duty.
So, ahead of a stamina-sapping run of 11 games prior to the end of the year, Matip goes from supporting act to leading man in a makeshift defence also minus Trent Alexander-Arnold as club football returns following the November international break.
It is a tough task for the former Schalke player, too. Ahead of hosting Leicester City at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet in their last 13 Premier League games, conceding in each of their previous six outings at home in the competition.
Unsurprisingly, Jurgen Klopp talked up Matip’s qualities – and defended his durability amid a concerning injury record – ahead of the visit of the in-form Foxes.
“Since he’s been with us, he’s been incredible,” the Liverpool boss, who had seen plenty of Matip before linking up on Merseyside following his time in charge at Borussia Dortmund, said. “He’s an incredible football player, it’s unbelievable how good he is.
“Yes, he was unlucky with injuries. Before he arrived, no injuries – he played through for Schalke for four, five, six years. He comes here and it starts, but they’re all different.
“The last injury he had from someone cutting the tendon on his toe, in the Everton game, then you’re out and you look vulnerable. Now he’s back – and hopefully for a long time.
“If he is in the best moment of his career, I don’t know. But I am really happy with this moment of his career, for how he’s been for the past three years. Super player.”
Strength, Naby lad pic.twitter.com/SbatutZ0aa
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 21, 2020
Klopp has every right to suggest the 29-year-old is “super” – at least he is when fit, which has not always been the case during his club career.
In 76 league starts for the Reds – 58 of which he has ended up on the winning side, as well as helping record 29 clean sheets – Matip has committed only two errors that have led to goals for the opposition.
His tackle success rate in those games sits a fraction under 70 per cent and, considering the importance of playing out from the back for a team likely to control possession in so many of their contests, his pass completion rate has never dropped below 80 per cent.
What Liverpool need from him most, though, is a sustained run without another spell out of action. As Klopp suggested, the injury issues have been varied but an already weakened back-line could do with a consistent presence at the heart of it.
Matip has suffered ankle, hamstring and thigh problems since joining on a free transfer, as well as a fractured collarbone. His involvement in the 2019-20 campaign was limited to nine league appearances due to a knee injury, and already this term he has missed games.
Liverpool can ill-afford to be without him too often from now on, considering the centre-back cupboard is so bare. Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips are young and still untested at the top level, despite recent experiences in the first team, while the versatile Fabinho – so often used as a holding midfielder – can fill in.
A January move to strengthen may be in the pipeline behind the scenes – Dayot Upamecano at RB Leipzig has been strongly linked, along with another Bundesliga player in Schalke’s Ozan Kabak.
For now, though, Klopp must make do with the current options in his depleted squad. The Reds boss will hope that, most weeks, Matip is among them.