COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
In Liverpool’s 2-1 victory at Leicester City earlier in the campaign, a particular moment in the 53rd minute caught the eye; with the Reds still 2-0 up, they had a huge scare moments after the restart when the Foxes worked an opening which had James Maddison eyeball to eyeball with Alisson.
Many at the King Power Stadium were expecting the net to bulge, but the alert figure of Joe Gomez had covered for his beaten defensive partner Virgil van Dijk to make an outstanding block which prevented Claude Puel’s side from halving the deficit.
That minor instance showed just why the youngster is so highly rated at Anfield, and why Joel Matip has much work to do if he’s to usurp the Englishman from Jurgen Klopp’s perfectly balanced defensive setup.
Who’s @LFC’s best bet to partner Virgil van Dijk at centre-back this season?
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 28, 2018
The Cameroonian has been unlucky with injuries since his move to Merseyside, but has always seemed guaranteed of a starting spot when fit.
He’d been predicted to form a formidable partnership with van Dijk, but a thigh injury, that required surgery, ruled him out of the rest of last season, leaving Dejan Lovren to partner the Dutchman.
No sooner had he returned for pre-season, than he was hit with yet another setback in the Reds’ friendly against Borussia Dortmund in July, suffering another muscle injury that had sidelined him until his goalscoring return in convincing 3-0 Southampton win last weekend.
Klopp gushed about his returning centre-back’s return, hailing his performance as ‘brilliant’, and was amazed that he could deliver such an excellent display in his first competitive game since March.
The former Schalke defender reprised his role, alongside Lovren this time, in Wednesday’s 2-1 Carabao Cup defeat by Chelsea, which saw Klopp’s side suffer their first domestic defeat of the season. They also conceded two goals, the first time it’s happened in local competitions so far in this campaign, but when taken into context; both of the Blues’ goals were out of the Cameroonian’s hands.
Kevin Friend’s incorrect awarding of a free-kick, as opposed to a throw-in, led to the visitors’ equalizer, while an amazing solo effort from the mesmeric Eden Hazard completed the Pensioners’ smash-and-grab victory.
Both sides face off at Stamford Bridge this weekend, and Gomez is likely to return to the side in what might be his toughest encounter yet in a Liverpool shirt.
The 21-year-old has also suffered his fair share of discouraging injuries, and has done really well to return to full fitness following ankle surgery at the backend of last season.
His impeccable reading of the game and uncanny composure with the ball at his feet have caught the eye this term.
It’s also no surprise that he’s formed an extremely effective partnership with Liverpool’s record signing, which has seen them concede just two goals in the league after six games.
At the same stage last season, they had conceded 11 goals – which were conceded in four of those games – with the trio of Matip, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan featuring at the back as Klopp’s side struggled to find a solid defensive structure.
When put into context, you’d find that the pair of strikes conceded this season haven’t been as a result of glaring defensive errors. Leicester’s goal was a result of Alisson’s showiness, while Erik Lamela’s effort came really deep into stoppage time. Both goals were certainly avoidable, but there’s clearly been a dramatic improvement.
The emergence of Gomez in the ongoing campaign cannot be downplayed, and his performances have, generally, been better than his defensive partner’s – further highlighting just how good he’s been.
It’d definitely be bizarre if Klopp was to tweak a working formula, and re-introduce Matip alongside van Dijk at the youngster’s expense.
Given his youth, as opposed to the Lovren (29) and Matip (27), the improving English defender has got a naturally higher performance ceiling than the pair, who are unlikely to usurp the incumbent as he seems to have temporarily cemented his spot in the side.
Tougher tests lie ahead, and a with a run of games against Chelsea, Napoli and Manchester City on the horizon, a loss of form, to the side or Gomez, may see Klopp tweak things.
The evidence of this week suggests that Matip, who is waiting in the wings, will seize his chance when the opportunity does arrive.