Liverpool’s Joel Matip: “I have no doubt about our way of playing”

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LIVERPOOL — Joel Matip is often a busy man in the heart of Liverpool’s defense.

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Yet, he certainly doesn’t resemble someone who is usually frantically scrambling to keep out opposition forwards.

Ahead of schedule for our chat he was relaxed as he leaned back in his chair at Liverpool’s Melwood training center, occasionally scratching his chin.

Part of a Liverpool team brimming with attacking talents and packed with goals from Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, defense is often an afterthought for the Reds.

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After conceding sloppy goals against Watford and Burnley in the Premier League this season, plus a demolition at Manchester City, a draw against Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League group stage and a defeat at Leicester City in the League Cup in midweek, many armchair analysts and pundits are calling for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to alter his high-pressing approach and set up his defense differently.

You won’t find Matip doing that.

Quite clearly Liverpool’s most consistent defender since he arrived in the Premier League last summer, Matip doesn’t believe he and his teammates need to change to a more defensive style to keep winning games.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) Matip was adamant that the players, both attackers and defenders, must stay true to themselves.

“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”

The 6-foot 5-inch center back arrived from Schalke on a free transfer last summer and has settled in impressively in his first 12 months in England, establishing himself as Liverpool’s first-choice center back.

His strong aerial ability and calmness to make key challenges and blocks around the box have particularly impressed.

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How does he assess their start to the season which sees them in eighth place in the Premier League after two wins, two draws and a defeat in their opening five games?

“We have had our good moments and also our not so good moments. We were punished for these and it was ruthless, the first few games, but we have to carry on,” Matip said. “I am not in doubt about the quality in our team and I am looking forward to the next game and I’m positive still.”

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That next game comes against Leicester, who beat Liverpool 2-0 to on Tuesday in the League Cup third round after Klopp made multiple changes to his starting lineup — including a rest for Matip and usual center back partner Dejan Lovren — and the Reds failed to take many clear cut chances (a reoccurring theme) in a first half they dominated.

Matip, a late injury concern ahead of the clash at the King Power Stadium, believes Liverpool can take plenty of positives from their defeat at Leicester earlier in the week.

“The game on Saturday will be a completely different game,” Matip said. “You cannot compare these two games. I think we did it very well in the first half [on Tuesday] and we will try to copy this, maybe with a bit more luck upfront, but we are in a good way if we score then keep a clean sheet and don’t concede many goals. I am looking forward to it and I think we can win.”

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Looking back at his first 12 months in England the German born defender, who represented Cameroon at international level from 2010-15, is enjoying life in the Premier League.

Smiling and laughing often as we chat at Melwood, the languid center back is in his full tracksuit and is getting ready for an afternoon training session ahead of the Leicester game.

“It was a long year but I enjoyed this year, with all the ups and downs. It is a pleasure and an honor to play for Liverpool in the Premier League,” Matip said. “I try to do my best and help all of my teammates and my teammates also help me, so we have to help each other. Everybody helps each other and that’s the only way to go.”

At Liverpool the weight of past success, particularly in Europe, often sits heavy with five European Cups in the trophy cabinet and the Reds now back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

Does extra pressure come from Liverpool’s illustrious history as the fans demand more success in Europe?

“I think pressure, that would not be right. There is an opportunity,” Matip said. “We worked hard for this opportunity. Pressure is the wrong word because Liverpool has this great past but we only try to do our best and use this opportunity and try to enjoy.”

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Special European nights at Anfield are something Matip clearly cherishes.

“They are tough games but everyone is happy we have the opportunity to play in the Champions League. Every football player wants to play in these games. It is always a special night [at Anfield] and always special to play against the biggest teams in Europe. These are special nights to play against these international teams and these are the nights when you are really small, what you dreamed of,” Matip added, smiling.

What has been the main difference of moving to the Premier League from the Bundesliga?

“Physically and sometimes the pace,” Matip said. “It’s going up and down, up and down. In Germany it is often a little more tactical I would say. It is not going down from the one goal to the other goal. That would be the main difference.”

Matip worked hard over the offseason to prepare his body for those differences and for his second grueling campaign in England.

He admitted he can improve in many areas and said it is “a pleasure” to work with Klopp who “tries to improve me every day” and is “enjoying” the experience of working for his countryman as he makes the necessary adjustments.

“For me it was really important to make the whole preparation. For me last season was not easy with all the injuries but injuries belong to football. You cannot always do something against that. I hope preparation will help me a lot to get a good fitness level but there are a lot of points to work hard on. I have to improve a lot of things. It would be better to list all the things I don’t have to improve!” Matip chuckled. “I don’t know things on this list. I have to improve at everything and get better to help the team.”

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In terms of how the team plays and how Klopp asked his defenders to defend, has Matip worked on positioning and other specifics since making the move to England?

“This depends on the way you play. When Klopp was a coach in Germany he also had his center backs to play in a similar ways. I would say psychically because you play against a striker who are really strong in the air and bring a lot of body weight into the game,” said Matip, laughing out loud. “Also the pace. If you go directly from offense to defense, offense to defense, that’s something different to get used to.”

Should Liverpool switch to a back three to give them extra numbers in central defense and in the central attacking areas?

“It is different but it is not all about the system. It is not always easy for us against deep, defending teams with many lads in the back,” Matip said. “Sometimes they manage really good but we are always trying and because of this, in the end, we will have the luck because we work really hard for this.”

Matip has always worked hard to reach the top but it certainly helped being from a soccer mad family as his father, Jean, was a footballer and his older brother, Marvin, still plays for Ingolstadt in Germany’s second-tier. His cousin is also Joseph-Desire Job, the former Middlesbrough striker, so soccer was always in his blood.

“My older brother was my biggest role model. He was a few years older and I always looked up to him. Our family growing up, there was a lot of football,” Matip smiled. “It is a pleasure but there was no pressure from my family. I could do anything I wanted and they always support me.”

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Matip’s parents are both qualified doctors and the German-born, Cameroon international gives thoughtful, insightful answers when considering questions.

He owes plenty to his education in both life and soccer via an esteemed academy at Schalke. He graduated from the now famous Gesamtschule Berger Feld school which has German internationals Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Howedes among their alumni.

“The school was not the only part. The work they did at Schalke at youth level, there was a brilliant coach at U-19, [Norbert] Elgert. Every former player if you call and ask about him would say he was a fantastic coach and is still a fantastic coach,” Matip said. “Everybody is really thankful for him and he did a great job with the connection with the school. Everything there was a good start for every football player.”

After leaving for a new experience and a new country Matip is settling into life in England’s north west. Last summer he moved away from home for the first time at the age of 25 and Matip is enjoying life on Merseyside. Even if he is yet to perfect his Scouse accent…

“I am still struggling with most of the dialect,” Matip laughed. “The language is not easy but you start talking and you are getting better and better. I am still fighting and when they use the Scouse accent I am always like ‘what!?’ I need one, two, three or maybe four tries to understand it but I am in a good way. Maybe it will take a while to understand the Scouse but I am still happy to be here.”

Always smiling, always peaceful, Matip is ready to continue leading Liverpool’s defense as they aim to win their first trophy in over five years.

“Of course, everyone wants to win trophies but this will not happen from one day to the other,” Matip said. “But we work hard to improve ourselves and achieve something.”

La Liga & Serie A: Barca routs Deportivo, AC Milan routed

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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Barcelona 4-0 Deportivo

Although Lionel Messi’s stardom was rewarded prior to the match at the Camp Nou with the European Golden Shoe, the Argentine forward couldn’t crack the scoresheet one the game kicked off. That didn’t matter though, as Luis Suarez and Paulinho each bagged braces on the day to keep Barcelona six points clear of Atletico Madrid on Sunday. Messi, who had a penalty kick attempt saved in the second half, came close on several occasions, but couldn’t find the scoring touch for the Blaugrana.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Girona 1-0 Getafe
Celta Vigo 0-1 Villareal
Las Palmas 2-2 Espanyol


Hellas Verona 3-0 AC Milan

If AC Milan’s season wasn’t bad enough prior to Sunday, today’s performance at the Stadio Marc`Antonio Bentegodi could have only made the club’s outlook much, much worse. Hellas captured its third league win of the season, however, the team remains in 19th in Serie A despite picking up three points. Meanwhile, the Rossoneri fell to eight in Italy’s top flight, after Genaro Gattuso’s men were completely outplayed on the road. To make matters worse for the struggling side, Suso earned a straight red card in the dying minutes, leaving Milan to fend with 10 men.

Bologna 0-3 Juventus

At the top of Serie A, things are getting very intriguing as the season nears its halfway point. Juventus did its part to keep pressure on league leaders Napoli, but four teams currently sit within four points of one another at the league’s summit, making for a testy title race. Miralem Pjanic and Mario Mandzukic each scored before halftime, giving the Bianconeri a comfortable lead before the break. Meanwhile, ex-PSG man Blaise Matuidi capped off the game’s scoring in the 64th minute.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Atalanta 3-3 Lazio
Benevento 1-2 SPAL
Sampdoria 0-1 Sassuolo
Fiorentina 0-0 Genoa
Crotone 1-0 Chievo Verona

Charity match raised significant money for Hurricane Harvey victims

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On Saturday night, a charity soccer match in Houston, Texas helped raise money for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

[ MORE: Liverpool batters Bournemouth to go fourth ]

The “Kick in for Houston” game was organized by former Houston Dynamo and U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Stu Holden — now an analyst for Fox Sports 1. Holden served as one of the team captains, while former NBA star Steve Nash captained the other team.

In total, Holden’s event raised over $239,000 for hurricane relief funds, per the event’s website.

Saturday’s match featured several other notable celebrities and current, as well as, former soccer player, like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, Mia Hamm and U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Kyle Martino.

The game — which was an 8 vs. 8 fixture — finished 12-12 at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Holden spoke after the match about the overall success of the event, and the sort of impact it had for the Texas community.

“Amazing,” Holden said after the game. “If I pictured three months ago after I sent that tweet that this was going to be the turnout… everybody that came, all the athletes, all the people in the crowd, all the work that’s gone on behind the scenes, I can promise you it’s a lot more than it seems.

“I’m caught up in the middle of all this, but I thought this was an amazing, amazing night, and I hope to do another of these in the future.”

Additionally, Holden and Co. will be auctioning off game-worn kits from Saturday’s game to also benefit hurricane victims.

Rooney says Man City have work to do be better than ’08 Man United

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Perhaps it’s the bias talking from the former Red Devils star, but Wayne Rooney doesn’t believe the Premier League leaders have surpassed one of his ex-squads.

[ MORE: Liverpool smashes Cherries to go fourth ]

Despite Manchester City’s amazing unbeaten start over the club’s opening 18 matches, Rooney says his former rivals aren’t quite yet better than his 2008 Manchester United team that went on to beat Chelsea in the Champions League final.

“I’m not sure they [City] are quite there. They would have to keep going and do a lot more,” Rooney told TalkSPORT. “There have been so many great teams throughout the years in the Premier League. This City team needs to win trophies and needs to do it for a longer period to be in that bracket.

“The best ever? I would go with the Man United team from 2008!”

Only one Premier league side has ever finished a season undefeated in league play, which was accomplished by “The Invincibles” of Arsenal from the 2003/04 campaign.

With Man City nearly halfway to that feat, and accumulating 52 points through the first four-plus months of the domestic season, Pep Guardiola and Co. appear on track to track to break several records.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table in Man City’s world ]

However, Rooney says the balance of competitions and a tricky fixture schedule over the holiday window will make staying unbeaten an impossible task for the Cityzens.

“I don’t think they can go unbeaten,” he added. “They have done incredibly well with the run they have been on, but the Premier League is so difficult, especially now with this Christmas period coming up.

“I know they have a huge squad, a great squad of players. But there are so many top teams. I think in previous years it has been two teams and you went in knowing you would win most of the other games.

“But now there are five or six other teams that can all beat each other and I’m sure in one of those games Man City will get beaten.”

Klopp hails players in blowout, downplays squad rotation

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Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t bothered by Jurgen Klopp‘s squad rotation at Liverpool.

“The front four have been on fire, they are not bad,” he said after the Reds battered Bournemouth 4-0 on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool ]

“Everyone’s a quality player and the rest of us have to sneak our noses in there. Squad rotation is important, keeps us fresh.”

Klopp was a little more critical of his squad, saying the changes had more to do with how the Reds performed against West Brom than a need to keep players fresh.

“I like them but against West Brom they didn’t hit the target. I don’t change my mind in three minutes, but we have to be consistently good because we are Liverpool.”

The manager especially loved how well Liverpool started, as Bournemouth didn’t have a chance to get moving. Klopp gets plenty of criticism, but he almost always has his finger on the pulse of his club. Sunday was a big win for the manager and his club, even if it was somewhat expected.