Roberto Firmino

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.”

Klopp’s reliance on top CB pair nothing new, but a problem

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When Jurgen Klopp was hired at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, he did something right away that would set the stage for BVB’s run back into Bundesliga power.

Klopp brought defender Neven Subotic with him from Mainz, and took Mats Hummels on loan from Bayern Munich.

The 19-year-old Subotic played 38 times for BVB that season, and Hummels played well on way to a permanent transfer.

[ MORE: Klopp left fuming at defending ]

Largely, Klopp seemed to “set it and forget it” with his center backs from that point forward: No big summer buys, and neither Subotic nor Hummels was headed anywhere.

That didn’t change until 2013-14, when Klopp bought Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Werder Bremen, adding Matthias Ginter the next season.

Klopp left BVB after a disappointing 2014-15, taking the job at Liverpool in October 2015.

He didn’t do much in January, but agreed to terms with Schalke center back Joel Matip in February and landed Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg in the summer. The Reds already had bought Dejan Lovren from Southampton in the Summer of 2014, and Klopp seemed set.

[ MORE: League Cup Weds. wrap ]

Lovren improved a lot with Matip next to him, and Klavan made just 15 appearances for the Reds last season. The Reds went hard at Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk, but failed to get him for any number of reasons. Still, Klopp figured his quartet, including young Joe Gomez in a pinch, would be just fine this season.

And maybe they will be, but there are daunting signs for the Reds in the first couple months of the season. Klopp has used Matip in eight matches, tied for the most on the team with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He’s used Lovren six times, and Klavan four.

Liverpool’s record by CB pair (admittedly a tiny sample size):

Matip-Lovren: 3W-2D
Matip-Klavan: 1W-1D-1L
Gomez-Klavan: 1L (today)

The center backs, sans Matip and Lovren, especially hurt the Reds in the 2-0 loss to Leicester on Tuesday. All three moments of Leicester threat in this highlight package find either Klavan or Gomez cooked or out-of-place.

Look, a lot of teams are going to be hurt when using their second-choice CB pair, and many won’t be bothered by Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup. Furthermore, it’s not like anyone has been mistaking Lovren and Matip for Puyol and Pique.

But look at every English team in Europe, including the ones with far fewer defensive frailties heading into this summer than Liverpool.

Chelsea bought Antonio Rudiger.

Everton added Michael Keane.

Manchester United bought Victor Lindelof.

Spurs bought Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth.

Arsenal didn’t buy anyone besides Alexandre Lacazette, while Man City bought full backs and has received plenty of criticism for failing to add to its center back corps of Vincent Kompany, John Stones, and Eliaquim Mangala.

Liverpool? They sold Mamadou Sakho.

It’s problematic, yes, and it can’t be fixed until January. The question is whether Klopp sees a need to spend in the winter window. As illustrated above, he loves to ride his horses, even if Lovren and Matip aren’t quite Hummels and Subotic.

Think of what’s ailed Liverpool in recent seasons: Are some of those flops against lesser Premier League teams changed with more rest for their top pair or a better option for the mix?

Tite selects blasts from past for Brazil roster

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Brazil manager Tite has picked his roster for a pair of qualifiers against Bolivia and Chile, and there are a few familiar names not heard from of late.

Most notably, 33-year-old Fred has been called in, his first call-up since the 2014 World Cup. Also brought in is 32-year-old Diego Tardelli, who has 14 career caps and last saw time in the 2015 Copa America. Tardelli is playing in China with Shandong Luneng. Tite also recalled another 32-year-old in Flamengo midfielder Diego, who has not seen the field for Brazil since 2008. Diego was called up back in March but was an unused substitute in both World Cup qualifiers.

26-year-old Danilo was also called in, after starting the season brightly for Manchester City. He has 16 previous caps for Brazil and one goal, and has started the Premier League season by appearing in all for City games, with one assist.

Not on the roster is Chelsea defender David Luiz, who has not played in a competitive match for Brazil since March of 2016. Neither was former Chelsea midfielder Oscar who has just returned from suspension with Chinese club SIPG. He has nine assists in 16 Chinese Super League appearances this season.

Brazil has already qualified for the 2018 World Cup, sitting 10 points above the rest of the table.

BRAZIL ROSTER

GK: Alisson (Roma), Cassio (Corinthians), Ederson (Manchester City).

DEF: Danilo (Manchester City), Miranda (Inter Milan), Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Daniel Alves (Paris Saint-Germain), Jemerson (Monaco), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), Marcelo (Real Madrid).

MID: Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool), Willian (Chelsea), Arthur (Gremio), Diego (Flamego), Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk).

FWD: Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Neymar (PSG), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool).

Klopp on dominant Liverpool’s late lost lead, Sevilla scuffle

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That little touch line altercation between Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Sevilla’s bench staff? No big deal, says Klopp.

The Reds’ boss says Sevilla’s staff accused him of lobbying for manager Eduardo Berizzo to be sent off, which he was, in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla at Anfield in UEFA Champions League play on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Pulisic on Wembley loss, Lalas rant ]

“The coach was no problem, but I do not think I had any decision on the referee,” Klopp said. “I did not ask for it. The people on their bench thought I was responsible for his red card and did not like me too much.”

Klopp’s men went down early when Dejan Lovren‘s weak intervention went awry, allowing a pass to Wissam Ben Yedder on the doorstep.

Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Saleh gave the hosts a 2-1 lead, before Firmino missed a penalty. The Reds dominated the game and chances, but Joaquin Correa made sure both sides earned points with a late goal.

Klopp’s diagnosis was an odd one, at least considering the result.

“It was pretty much a winning performance for 85-86 minutes and the team played well against a side who play well. We had answers for everything apart from the goals. I have to see them again. That is not the good thing. It was an exciting game from my side, everyone saw our desire and passion but we got a point.”

I get the underlying point, but doesn’t Klopp’s assertion that they were fine apart from the goals meet the general criticism of his teams’ defensive performances? And doesn’t it sound like the old “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” cliche?

Anyway, a draw with Sevilla is not the end of the world, especially in a group with Maribor and Spartak Moscow. Essentially, the Reds have three-plus months to sort out their back line, and may just need the January transfer window.

Champions League wrap: Ronaldo leads Madrid; Besiktas posts big W

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Four terrific goals at Wembley Stadium were met by plenty more around the continent as the second batch of UEFA Champions League groups kicked off play on Wednesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]


Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Borussia DortmundRECAP

Son started the scoring with a terrific solo run down the left flank, turning the corner on Sokratis and then blasting a shot over the shoulder of Roman Burki.

Yarmolenko looked an able addition with a wonderful curling rip from atop the 18 to make it 1-1.

That’s when Kane gave the match its third goal within the first 15 minutes, and Burki was again victimized short side. Kane’s shot swept around Burki and may’ve even just kissed the post on its way to Spurs’ 2-1 lead. He’d add a second later.

Feyenoord 0-4 Manchester CityRECAP

A John Stones brace? Why not?

This one was supposed to be a tougher ask for City, but Pep’s men have pulled into a controlling position through Stones’ second minute marker and a Sergio Aguero goal off a Kyle Walker cross in the 10th.

Gabriel Jesus deposited a rebound to make it 3-0 after ex-Liverpool man Brad Jones pushed Benjamin Mendy‘s shot back away from goal. Stones nabbed the club’s fourth goal in the second half, nodding a David Silva cross home.

Liverpool 2-2 SevillaRECAP

Sevilla’s attack was always going to ask questions of the Reds’ defense, and it’s Wissam Bin Yedder’s fifth minute goal that has Liverpool trailing at Anfield.

Predictably, Liverpool had an answer, and it was Roberto Firmino who knotted the score line with a 21st answer goal. Then Mohamed Salah, no stranger to European competition, did some work of his own to make it 2-1 before the break.

It looked set for 3-1, but a Sadio Mane-won penalty was put off the post by Firmino. That would come back to haunt the Reds, as Joaquin Correa was given acres of space to level the score in the 72nd minute.

Porto 1-3 Besiktas

Anderson Talisca, Cenk Tosun, and ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel scored as Turkey’s powers opened their bid for a winnable group. It won’t be easy, and Dusko Tosic’s own goal briefly had it level in Portugal.

Real Madrid 3-0 APOEL Nicosia

Cristiano Ronaldo is okay when it comes to this UEFA Champions League thing, you know? The Portuguese 32-year-old scored two on the day, the second a penalty kick.

Sergio Ramos added to the fun with an overhead goal, as the reigning champs twice-over look fine at home.

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Napoli

Raise your hand if you had Napoli down early in Ukraine. Those with ’em up have Taison to thank for the 15th minute opener, and feel downright psychic thanks to Facundo Ferreyra‘s second-half insurance goal. Arkadiusz Milik pulled one back for the visitors with a 71st minute penalty kick.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Monaco

Emil Forsberg scored for the hosts just after the half-hour mark at Germany’s Red Bull Arena, with Youri Tielemans not needing long to answer for the 2017 semifinalists.

Maribor 1-1 Spartak Moscow

Alexander Samedov, Russia’s lone goal scorer against Mexico at this summer’s Confederations Cup, scored Spartak’s goal at the Ljudski Vrt, but the hosts’ Damjan Bohar netted in the 85th minute to split the points.