The Swiss mathematician Marcel Grossman has a fair claim to be one of the most important scientists of the last 200 years. He was an expert in non-Euclidean geometry whose work on field equations and tensor calculus proved instrumental in synthesising mathematical and theoretical physics, establishing a link between gravitational force and the geometry of spacetime. The reason you probably haven’t heard of him is that his achievements were largely overshadowed by his friend and collaborator, a guy called Albert Einstein.
While Einstein incorporated Grossman’s ideas into what would become his 1915 general theory of relativity, and became one of the most famous scientists in history, Grossman died in 1936 to virtually zero fanfare outside the mathematics community. And in any number of other fields, the history books are littered with outstanding talents whose dubious misfortune was to operate in the shadow of a more celebrated contemporary. Haydn and Beethoven. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Grace Hartigan and Jackson Pollock. Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
Into this category we might also tentatively insert Joel Matip: a man whose labours have gone largely unheralded as a result of the titan playing alongside him. Virgil van Dijk is seen as the gemstone of the Liverpool defence, and fair enough: he’s extremely good. Equally, though, it feels churlish not to mention the man who has come from fourth-choice centre-half to establish himself as Van Dijk’s natural partner.
As recently as the start of this year, this would have felt like an extremely unlikely course of events. Between August 2018 and January 2019, Matip started just five out of 28 games in Premier League and Champions League. Indeed, if you saw Matip at all last autumn, it would most likely have been as a time-wasting 90th-minute substitute, someone you throw in when you’re 2-1 up and expecting a barrage of long balls.
Marooned behind the outstanding Joe Gomez and World Cup finalist Dejan Lovren, and suffering from a collarbone injury, Matip seemed destined for the fringes of the squad, perhaps even the exit door. At which point, fate took a hand. Gomez broke his leg, and with Lovren’s form in decline, Matip found himself back in the side. He hasn’t relinquished his spot since.
Sunday’s game against Chelsea was the perfect window for Matip’s talents: a game with plenty of contact, plenty of crosses and plenty of long balls into the channels, an aerial dogfight, a salty grapple. In other words, a game full of the sort of defending Matip loves. Since the emergence of Van Dijk, you often see opposing strikers targeting his partner, and from the early stages it was clear Tammy Abraham was set on doing the same. Instead, Matip came away with the man-of-the-match award: the weak link that isn’t.
So what’s been the secret? Naturally, Matip isn’t as technically adept as Van Dijk, and nor is he as quick over the turf. You don’t want him covering huge swathes of the field, or chasing counter-attacks up the touchline. And in the early years of his Liverpool career, he was guilty of the odd flat-footed error, as culpable as anyone for their weakness at set pieces. But with surer foundations now in place around him, Matip can concentrate on what he does best: heading balls away all day long.
As Chelsea swung in cross after cross, put up raking diagonals for Abraham to chase into the channels, Matip held firm. In a way, he is the ideal foil for Van Dijk in these games: a sort of first-responder, winning the initial contact before Van Dijk steams in to take control of the situation. That seems to be borne out in their respective statistics: Matip making more tackles and interceptions, Van Dijk making more clearances and passes.
“Not a lot of people spoke about the impact Joel Matip had in the last third of the season,” Jurgen Klopp groused over the summer. “I don’t see a lot of centre-backs in the world who are better in that period, 100 per cent, pretty much without any mistakes.” And it’s true that Matip’s consistency and concentration have greatly improved since his return to the side.
Equally, though, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the quality of the players around him has undergone similar improvement. A well-drilled pressing unit around him. A scurrying midfield snuffing out danger in front of him. A world-class goalkeeper behind him. Most of all, he has one of the best defenders in the world alongside him to learn from. Perhaps, like many before him, Matip will never quite escape the immense shadow of the giant Dutchman to his left. But in a team with an unstinting focus on the collective, perhaps every Einstein needs his Grossman.