Joel Matip proved the doubters wrong in 2021/22, making the most appearances in his Liverpool career to date for a level of consistency that has been longed for.
Whisper it, but Matip might be the second-best defender in the Premier League.
The Cameroonian’s was a season defined by context, which is no small irony given the success of a certain social account created in his honour.
Heading into 2021/22, the popular centre-back had made just 19 league appearances in the previous two seasons combined.
Indeed, he hadn’t featured since the latest in a long line of injuries forced him off at half-time against Tottenham in late January.
Quite unbelievably he was, by that point, the last (senior) Liverpool centre-back left standing. Cue a rotten run of form underpinned by a peculiar mix of defensive combinations.
Everyone from Jordan Henderson to long-serving kitchen team Carol and Caroline were considered for a starting berth as the Reds slumped from title chasers to top-four outsiders.
Still scarred by that experience, Liverpool rightly entered the new season well stocked.
Despite welcoming back all of Matip, Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, they chose to retain the services of unlikely hero Nat Phillips and bolster the ranks further still with the purchase of Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.
On the eve of the new campaign, however, it’s fair to say many supporters deemed Matip as somewhat of an afterthought. As fourth choice as fourth choice gets.
Rewind 12 months and the general consensus was he was a quality, but unreliable option – perhaps capable of stepping in for cup games.
Should another injury headache progress to a migraine, he might just step into the breach until he too succumbed to what, in Matip’s case, seemed like the inevitable.
Against this backdrop, it’s staggering to think the 30-year-old would go on to post the most appearances he’s made in a single season at the club and the tenth most of any Red.
Not only that, but he’d perform to a level that would see him earn wider recognition.
Joel Matip, 22/2021
Started: 42 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 1
Unused sub: 15
Overall Season Rating: 9.12
An uninterrupted pre-season was key to the unprecedented consistency in his fitness that we would see.
From the get-go, it was obvious Matip was further along in his recovery than either Van Dijk or Gomez. By the time the Reds returned from a summer trip to Austria, it was clear it would be him and one other that would begin the campaign.
And begin it he did, in some style.
To the surprise of many, Matip would actually start all of the first five, and seven of the first eight league encounters.
Whilst Norwich posed little threat on opening day, the agricultural style of now relegated Burnley called for front-foot defending. Matip was not found wanting, standing up to the physical challenge – not to mention the dark arts – that are par for the course when fronting Ashley Barnes.
Then came Chelsea and a Romelu Lukaku intent on pulling onto Matip, as opposed to his more illustrious partner. Again, he was managed expertly.
By this time, it was clear Liverpool’s defensive setup was unlike anything seen previously in the Premier League era. There were high lines and then there was Liverpool’s high wire act.
It could be argued this impacted Matip’s game time towards the end of the campaign but in those opening months, he was key to executing the plan and pushing Liverpool further up the field.
His reintroduction also served to rejuvenate Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Now confident enough in what lay behind him, the generational right-back was liberated, given license to venture forward and contribute to the attack in devasting fashion. He wasn’t alone in that regard.
That’s because Matip quickly made habit of switching to playmaker-in-chief himself.
With a growing number of opponents choosing to sit deep and deploy the ‘play dead’ tactic, it was Matip’s marauding runs from the back that would invariably commit a man and create space.
An early example of this came at Leeds, where he provided the assist before the assist for Mo Salah to bring up 100 league goals.
A rare off-day came away at Brentford, where a direct style of play saw Matip not so much dominated but rocked.
Bamboozled by the newcomers’ all-action approach, the ‘Yellows’ were disorganised and paid what would ultimately prove a high price. Matip himself was guilty of losing too many first balls that evening. It’s something he would learn from.
Nevertheless, this would have been uppermost in Jurgen Klopp’s mind when deciding to bench him for the trip to Old Trafford in October. Konate was entrusted to deal with the aerial threat of Cristiano Ronaldo and did so without breaking a sweat.
Yet by the autumn, for Matip there was no question as to who was first-choice. Fans delighted in the former Schalke’s man’s revival and his manager marvelled at his amazing consistency.
Wider acclaim duly followed, with Matip clinching the EA Sports Player of the Month for February, becoming just the 16th defender in history to win the gong.
That prize came within a week of him opening his personal account for the season, finally rounding off one of those mesmeric runs with a cool finish at home to Leeds, much to the delight of the Kop.
Only Henderson could find fault with a centre-half reborn, taking umbrage to a slap on the back of the head whilst celebrating a goal in the San Siro. Memes aplenty followed.
Battle with Ibou
It would be wrong to say his campaign tailed off after this, but the emergence of Konate led to the pair sharing the position come the run-in.
The Frenchman was already preferred in cup competitions and the further into those the Reds ventured, the more his game time increased.
The youngster’s recovery pace also came to the forefront as games became stretched.
For the most part, Klopp got the balance right. Privately, however, he may rue the decision not to plump for the more senior of the two against Spurs in an Anfield stalemate that ultimately decided the destination of the title.
Antonio Conte’s backline was entrenched within the Anfield Road End and Matip’s famed creativity was needed. Not even the Italian could plan for a 6’9 beanpole charging up the field akin to a horse let loose in the wild.
But Matip certainly played his part as the Reds chased down four trophies. He notched an equaliser against Aston Villa and scored a frankly bizarre headed winner away to Southampton.
Crucially though he started two cup finals on the bench, remained an unused substitute in Paris and replaced Van Dijk for extra-time in the FA Cup final.
That may signal a changing of the guard heading into 2022/23.
Matip went from (arguably) fourth choice to the best defender in the division for a three-four month period.
It goes without saying he will be right in contention to begin the new campaign at the heart of the defence. Yet the likelihood is Liverpool will become less reliant on him moving forward. That will almost certainly be the plan.
Nobody expected Matip to clock up 43 appearances in all competitions last term. That he did so is a testament to head of recovery Andreas Schlumberger and prevention specialists Zone7, not to mention the player himself.
But make no mistake, Liverpool will seek to bring that number down. On their own terms.
Konate’s progress has taken every one – management included – by surprise, while Joe Gomez appears to be nearing peak condition after his own ‘comeback’ season.
Given the circumstances surrounding both players last summer, a great deal hinged on Matip’s durability. Less so now.
That is a great position to be in, particularly if you rewind the clock to the nadir that was the winter of the COVID campaign.
Moving forward, Matip will remain a key part of the Liverpool squad but not necessarily a first choice.
Make an all-out assault on four trophies once more though and they’ll be plenty of memes, not to mention merchandise, for us (and Virgil) to enjoy.
Best moment: A standout season across the board, but that marauding run of his finally ending with a goal against Leeds was a sight to behold.
Worst moment: Finding himself second to Konate in two of the three cup finals.
Role next season: An important and regular starter, but, hopefully, the emergence of Konate dictates appearances rather than any fitness issues.