Sami Hÿÿpiä was at the presidential reception for Finland’s Independence Day recently, smartly attired in a black suit. An ex-Liverpool player for seven years now, the former defender’s intelligent and composed style could have served the Reds well, as his former side gave up a 1-3 lead against Bournemouth last weekend to lose 4-3 in the game’s closing stages.
Not in his present incarnation, of course. Hÿÿpiä is long retired, but Liverpool have another defender cast in a remarkably similar mould – 6’5”, calmly authoritative, a bargain buy – whose rapid integration into the side is accentuated by the travails they face in his absence.
Joël Matip missed the defeat away at Bournemouth through injury and Liverpool gave up four goals. It may appear to be linear cause and effect, but it would be spurious to pin the Reds’ defeat on the absence of the Cameroonian alone. There is, however, no denying the huge impact he has had on the side in the brief time since his arrival in the summer.
The narrative of Liverpool’s defence as one that crumbles when the opponent has the audacity to apply any sort of pressure – that they can be ‘got at’, in short – much like other narratives, is a stew of truth, perception and certain egregious offences that remain in the mind.
The addition of Matip was meant to counteract this problem, the way for his arrival paved by the exit of two senior squad members in Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel in the summer. The new man has made 11 league appearances this season, scoring once – against Crystal Palace – and quickly become a first-choice pick in central defence alongside Dejan Lovren since his debut against Burton Albion in the EFL Cup.
On the face of it, Matip appears to be at the centre of correlations too many to be coincidence. The much debated lack of clean sheets for his side being one; Matip has played in all three league games where Liverpool have achieved a shutout, his side unbeaten with the centre-back at the heart of defence and winning eight times.
Liverpool have let in nine goals with Matip in the side. They have let in an equal number without him, except the number of games played in the first case equals 11, whereas in the latter scenario it is three. With him, they concede 0.81 goals a game, without him three goals a game.
Of the seven different defences fielded by the club this season, ones that include Matip usually don’t concede more than a goal a game, and a first-choice defence of Matip, Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner only concede a goal every 1.75 games. With him, they average 2.45 points a game, without him one point per game.
Of course, numbers can be a little misleading at times. Liverpool’s nine wins surely owe more to a frontline that has scored 31`times in those games, as much as their three clean sheets owe to the disinterest and/or inaccuracy of their opponents in those games.
It can be argued the infamous defeat at Turf Moor came about as a result of the inability to overhaul a resolute Burnley side that profited early in the game. Ragnar Klavan put a fatal foot wrong and gave away possession swiftly, so probably not the best time to mention him in the same breath as Liverpool’s improved defence, but the fact that Burnley scored with both their shots on target and gave up 80% of the possession is rather telling.
In the clean sheets obtained against Manchester United, Southampton and Sunderland, the three clubs respectively managed one, zero and one shot on target.
But equally, Liverpool’s lack of clean sheets is neither predominantly his doing nor overly troubling – at least not when Matip is around. A closer look at goals conceded against sides like Tottenham Hotspur, Burnley and Leicester City suggest that difficulties emerge in other respects, such as breakdowns on the left (the former game) or individual errors (the latter two) – in neither of which was Matip directly involved.
In 10 of the defender’s 11 appearances have Liverpool conceded a single goal or less, whereas in the other three without him they have conceded three (Arsenal), two (Burnley) and four (Bournemouth) goals respectively.
Attacking teams are intrinsically more likely to offer space and opportunity for opponents to exploit because of their front-foot proclivities – an observation that quickly became ammunition after the collapse on the south coast – and so the concession of the odd goal (and subsequent surrender of the supposedly hallowed clean sheet) is not reason enough for alarm bells to start ringing.
Perhaps they have ascended to that status as Liverpool have been rubbing shoulders with London’s finest at the right end of the table, where the performances of the league’s pacesetters Chelsea have glamourised clean sheets more than usual.
To contextualise Liverpool’s, and by extension Matip’s, defensive performances further, Arsenal – a not-so-shabby second place in the league, not in the midst of defensive crisis (as a cursory glance of the headlines would confirm), 14 goals conceded versus Liverpool’s 18, the newcomer Shkodran Mustafi integrating well into the side – have kept just one clean sheet more than the Reds and let in a single goal or less in 12 of their 14 games against Liverpool’s 10.
Hardly a difference of heaven and earth.
Ultimately, sides like Liverpool are at risk of giving up goals, but defenders like Matip actually prevent that happening to the maximum possible extent.
The Cameroonian’s presence is hardly a guarantee of clean sheets, but he greatly improves the defence to the point where it is economical enough to keep Liverpool in the game while the attack does what it does best; in his 11 games, Matip’s defence has helped notch one goal victories only three times, while another three times have the side won by three goals or more – all while the defence lets in one goal a game. When all are ready and able, Matip and company begin to look like the defence that, prior to Bournemouth, conceded just three goals in six games.
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