Joel Matip pushed on to become Liverpool’s most improved player of 2019.
That’s no mean feat, either – he began the season as the fourth-choice centre-back. To put some perspective on that, Matip had three starts under his belt by December 5th.
The first was a 3-0 win at home to Southampton, in which he scored. The second, a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup. Number three came on November 6th, as Liverpool lost 2-0 to Red Star.
So was he picking his minutes up from the bench? No, not really. By the time he started against Burnley on December 5th, all five of his substitute appearances combined for under five minutes.
Not exactly a memorable run.
Injuries to Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren gave him a chance in December, however – and boy, did he take it.
Matip played the full 90 minutes 23 times from the Burnley clash onwards. He started both legs against Barcelona and his performance at Anfield was probably the best he’s ever played. He was absolutely outstanding.
There was little doubt he would start the Champions League final and he rightly did, keeping another clean sheet.
As good and as comfortable as Matip looked by the end, it wasn’t an easy task. The standards set by Gomez, in particular, but also Lovren, were incredibly high.
Liverpool barely conceded any goals by December but then needed their fourth choice to step in. He couldn’t possibly have been prepared, considering the last serious run of games he’d had was a year earlier, pre-Virgil van Dijk.
Liverpool’s standards for defending were a lot lower before Van Dijk and Matip hadn’t looked particularly comfortable even then.
But Matip stepped up in 2019 and filled the void of Gomez and Lovren, alongside a player he had little experience with.
He saw off Barcelona, helped rack up 97 Premier League points, and lifted the Champions League trophy – one of the greatest seasons a Liverpool defender has ever seen. Liverpool will offer him a deserved new contract off the back of it, according to reports from the Telegraph.
Matip’s improvement has been incredible this season – he’s certainly not a distant fourth-choice anymore.