The centre-back missed out against the Hornets on Saturday, but will one man have changed the result at Vicarage Road and prevented the Reds’ wobble?
When you’ve gone 44 games unbeaten in the Premier League, won a record-equalling 18 games in a row, and are now a win away from holding the record for wins in the history of the competition, any defeat will obviously lead to some sort of post-mortem.
That’s what Liverpool have endured since Saturday’s heavy 3-0 defeat by Watford, the second-bottom team before a ball was kicked, a side who were winless in five before the weekend’s clash at Vicarage Road.
Furthermore, the Reds were unbeaten in eight previous games against the Hornets, winning four on the spin, so the reverse in Hertfordshire was unforeseen. It only added to the confusion at the manner of defeat, which has prompted critics to find reasons for the Reds’ spectacular collapse against a relegation-threatened side.
Why did Klopp’s side fail to create chances, and why was the usual intensity lacking?
Why did the meanest defence in the competition (they’d let in just 17 in 27 games before Saturday) concede a plethora of opportunities against Nigel Pearson’s team?
Or why was Dejan Lovren preferred to Joel Matip at the heart of the defence?
An interesting stat came to light in the aftermath of the loss: Virgil van Dijk has lost five times since signing for Liverpool in January 2017, with four of them coming with the Croatian playing alongside him.
After Joe Gomez was rested owing to a fitness concern, the expectation was for Matip to feature in the league alongside the world-class Dutchman, thus making his first league appearance since October 20 – against Manchester United.
However Klopp opted for Lovren, somewhat unusually against Watford.
79 minutes of match action in four months was probably not enough preparation for a game against the brawny Troy Deeney, the tricky Gerard Deulofeu, the speedy and efficient Ismaila Sarr as well as the powerful running of Abdoulaye Doucoure.
However, the heavy manner of the loss has brought up lots of questions in hindsight, including the German tactician’s centre-back picks.
Be that as it may, it should be noted that none of the goals conceded on Saturday were the Croat’s fault, and it’d be unfair to single him out given the entire side were unusually off the pace.
Van Dijk did not react to the danger for the first goal and flat footed for the second. You can’t blame Lovren for that.
— Simon Hughes (@Simon_Hughes__) February 29, 2020
Watford defended in numbers, sometimes switching to a 6-3-1 shape out of possession, and broke at speed utilising the left and right channels.
This was helped by the champions-elect’s very high defensive line, which Sarr took advantage of on more than one occasion in the second-half, but scored only once from the three times he was eyeball-to-eyeball with Alisson Becker.
So maybe Saturday’s loss had more to do with the side collectively playing poorly, with less intensity than usual, than the forced selection of one of two rusty centre-backs to play alongside the league’s best defender.
Admittedly, though, while Lovren and Matip have played in nine and eight games respectively this term, the latter’s stats are slightly better than his teammate’s.
The Cameroon defender makes 1.5 tackles and interceptions per game, while his clearances per game reads 4.6. Furthermore, he’s won 74 percent of his total duels this term.
On the other hand, the 2018 World Cup finalist makes one interception per game as well as 1.4 tackles per match. His clearances per game stands at 4.6 while he’s won 67 percent of his total duels.
Lovren edges Matip in ground duels, 72–53 percent, but the Cameroonian beats him in aerial battles won – 89–65 percent – further highlighting his superiority statistically.
Nevertheless, the 30-year-old’s slightly better match fitness compared to his African colleague probably made Klopp’s mind up going into Saturday’s match.
What was somewhat surprising, though, was the German coach’s decision to leave Matip on the bench for Tuesday night’s 2-0 FA Cup defeat by Chelsea, instead going with his preferred central defensive partnership of van Dijk and Gomez.
The former Borussia Dortmund coach doesn’t care much for the domestic cup competitions in England anyway, so it would have been no surprise had he rested his best defender while giving Matip a run-out alongside Gomez against Frank Lampard’s troops.
Instead, a much-changed Liverpool side still didn’t include the rusty 28-year-old, and the lack of games in the last four months has been disappointing.
Many will keep a keen eye on the European champions’ performance in this weekend’s meeting with out-of-form Bournemouth, trying to notice how they react to their setback against the Hornets.
After Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run ended with a 2-0 defeat by Man United, Arsene Wenger’s side dropped points in four of their next five league games, with their only win a rip-roaring 5-4 over North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Klopp’s side fell to another defeat on Tuesday, and critics will start to draw parallels with the Gunners’ collapse if more points are dropped against Bournemouth at Saturday lunchtime.
Regardless, unless injuries strike, it appears increasingly unlikely that Matip will play any kind of significant role in Liverpool’s title run-in, and as he became a peripheral figure in the Reds’ winning streak, so he may have become even less relevant as the campaign reaches its conclusion.