You won’t see Joel Matip on the priority list for a Covid vaccine but it is quite clear that he is vulnerable.
The affable, slightly awkward centre-back has been a very good player for Liverpool since his free transfer move from Schalke in the summer of 2016, but nowhere in Jurgen Klopp’s grand plan for his 2020/21 title defence – or “attack” as he called it – would there have been the idea of a reliance upon the 29-year-old who played nine Premier League games last season.
But when Matip went off at half-time with Liverpool 1-0 up at Tottenham on Thursday, heads fell off.
Those heads were already fairly wobbly with the pre-match news that Fabinho wasn’t at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at all. The stand-in centre-back had been stood down.
Matip’s injury meant that by the time the second half kicked off, all of Liverpool’s three senior centre-backs were injured and the player who has covered for them admirably was out too.
The new centre-back partnership was Jordan Henderson and Nat Phillips, a 16th different central defensive pairing of the season. How did it come to this?
The answer: Fairly chaotically.
And the funny thing is, the first-choice defence wasn’t actually playing very well at all this season.
When the stories of Liverpool’s campaign come to be written, it might well be forgotten that on the day the Reds were humiliated 7-2 by Aston Villa in October the back four was the first-choice one that guided them to the title last season – Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson.
That was also the same defence that had shipped three goals to Leeds on the season’s opening day, and there were questions growing around their performance, particularly their high line, as they headed over the park to Everton in mid-October.
Gomez in particular had looked completely shot in the Villa game and so he was dropped for Matip, meaning that this was now the defence that won the Champions League in 2019.
But before all that, back to the summer.
Liverpool could have sold Dejan Lovren several times over before they did, but with medals in his pocket and just a season left on his contract there weren’t too many dissenting voices among the Liverpool fanbase when he was allowed to join Zenit St Petersburg.
In fact, a lot of the concern about his departure centred on the fact that Mo Salah was losing his best mate in the squad, and not anything to do with the need for Lovren to actually play.
The Croatian was never as a bad a defender as some have made out, but he was on the scene of several crimes over the years, and a little like when Simon Mignolet left there was a sense of this being an evolutionary move as the Reds got better under Klopp.
It wasn’t a departure that was largely mourned, and although talk began about purchasing a new fourth-choice defender among the fans it wasn’t really seen as a huge priority by many.
In the event, Lovren was effectively replaced by the Olympiakos left-back Kostas Tsimikas, who signed almost immediately for a similar fee to serve as Andy Robertson’s backup.
After a year where Liverpool didn’t really have one of those, choosing not to replace Alberto Moreno after he left in 2019, it was welcomed by the majority of supporters.
Five months on, and not withstanding the terrible luck that the Greek has had with Covid and injury issues, the move was undoubtedly a mistake.
Lovren, a player who effectively covers two positions given that there are two centre-backs, would be a much more valuable player to have in the squad than Tsimikas, who in Robertson has one of Liverpool’s most durable players ahead of him.
So with Lovren down and no replacement sought, the common consensus was that Fabinho would serve as Liverpool’s fourth-choice centre-back for the odd game when he wasn’t needed in midfield, with the exciting signing of Thiago thrown into that equation too.
On the fringes of things were the likes of Billy ‘The Kid’ Koumetio, the French teenager who was an Anfield ball boy on *that* night against Barcelona and who was talked up by a giddy Klopp in pre-season, when he gave him his nickname.
Nat Phillips, the centre-back briefly seen when he came back from his loan in Stuttgart during their winter break to excel against Everton in the FA Cup, was back too, as was the green Rhys Williams after his spell getting to know ‘men’s football’ at Kidderminster Harriers in the National League North.
He’d been linked with loans to clubs in League One and Two, and he got a taste of what that would be like when he made his Reds debut at Lincoln in the Carabao Cup, playing alongside Van Dijk in the first half and Fabinho in the second.
With Gomez and Matip injured, the Brazilian had just made a surprise start at the back at Chelsea in the Premier League, earning praise for the way he dealt with Timo Werner in the 2-0 win.
Gomez was back for the Arsenal game in the Premier League though, with Liverpool putting on a terrific performance as they won 3-1. Everything seemed pretty rosy.
Then when Williams played again against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup the following week, it was clear that the 19-year-old had become the de facto fifth in line, Klopp seemed to rate him over Phillips.
Phillips, now 23, was signed by Liverpool in 2016 after he’d been released by Bolton and was on the verge of heading to the US to take up a scholarship at the University of Carolina.
Liverpool had seen something in him though, and essentially wanted the 6ft 3ins centre-back to play for the Under-23 team, acting as a rugged partner for players who were better with the ball at their feet.
Phillips would always have that cameo in last season’s Merseyside derby, and as sixth-choice, and left out of the Champions League squad, he was preparing to leave Liverpool in order to make a career for himself in the Championship.
Nottingham Forest and Bristol City were interested, but it was Swansea who moved closest to signing him before the transfer deadline.
A deal looked done, only to collapse at the last minute. Phillips would have returned to Liverpool thinking he wasn’t going to see much first-team football until at least January, then things started happening.
Everyone knows the circumstances around the Van Dijk injury at Goodison Park now, but Liverpool’s response was hugely impressive.
The Reds won their next five matches in all competitions, playing brilliant football in a 5-0 win at Atalanta with Gomez and Williams at the back after Fabinho had joined Matip on the sidelines. The Brazilian had suffered a hamstring injury at home to FC Midtjylland.
No matter though, Matip was back and started alongside Gomez for the very first time in a 1-1 draw at Manchester City. Liverpool’s No.2 and No.3 centre-backs starting together was the best they could hope for without Van Dijk, but it didn’t last.
The nature of Gomez’s injury on international duty was particularly felt by Liverpool’s England contingent.
Henderson has spoken of how the freak injury sustained in training “hit him hard”, and as recent images of the scars on Gomez’s left knee show, the defender felt the full force too.
Liverpool, though, pressed on with Matip and Fabinho at the back for a brilliant performance in a 3-0 win over Leicester when, with Salah out with coronavirus, there were fears that the injuries would catch up with them.
Williams continued to get games in the Champions League and now Phillips, who had made his Premier League debut against West Ham in late October, was in the equation in domestic games too. Liverpool had to manage the situation as best they could until January.
And they did.
Matip and Fabinho were the preferred pair, and then Williams was excellent when he was brought in to face Tottenham at home, shortly after he’d been the senior partner alongside debutant Koumetio in the Champions League at Midtjylland.
But against West Brom just after Christmas Matip was forced off, and Liverpool deflated.
They drew that game and began their recent poor run, with Henderson joining the ranks of the defenders in the loss at Southampton, the draw at home to Manchester United and now the impressive win at Spurs.
That second half in north London brought together Liverpool’s sixth and seventh-choice centre-backs in Phillips and his captain, for that 16th partnership of the season.
There will be more if, as is now expected and demanded, Liverpool bring in a new face in the closing days of the transfer window, when yet another character is added to this scarcely believable tale.
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