When news emerged that Dejan Lovren would be absent for the start of the season, it was a major cause of concern for Liverpool fans. Despite major strengthening bringing in new talents in goal, in midfield and in attack, the defence was left as it was last season. With Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan both struggling with injury, the only real choice Jurgen Klopp could pick was Joe Gomez.
The former Charlton youngster is no stranger to the role, having regularly stepped in throughout last season at both right-back and in a central position, filling in for injuries, suspensions and rotations. Just when he was finding his best form in a Liverpool shirt though, injury hit and cost him a potential start in a Champions League final and a World Cup call-up.
Just three and a half months on from that horrendous blow, Gomez’s position for both club and country looks more secure than ever. Stepping in for his Croatian counterpart, Gomez has made the role his own, slotting in alongside Virgil Van Dijk and forming a sensational partnership with the Dutchman.
Up against some of the Premier League’s more physical front-lines in the likes of Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace and Glenn Murray of Brighton & Hove Albion, the 21-year-old has shown his strength and composure which belies his years to look at ease, rarely, if ever, putting a foot wrong.
The stats from Gomez have been impressive, matching and even surpassing his £75 million companion in the heart of defence in many respects, including clearances. Whilst many immediately pointed to the presence of the Dutchman as key in his development and impressive form, his display against Brighton showed him beginning to surpass his partner.
Already after three time, his statistics for blocks and clearances are higher than at any other time in his Liverpool career, exceeding 0.3 and 4.3 respectively. Such numbers reflect his impressive ability to read the game and see what’s coming, one of his biggest strengths alongside an impressive array of talents.
What is perhaps even more important, especially in Klopp’s set-up, has been his return on the ball. With an average of 77.7 passes per match, only behind Virgil Van Dijk and James Milner, and 11 passes per match more than Joel Matip averaged in 2016/17 and 15 passes per match more than Dejan Lovren in the same period, he has shown what he can do with the ball at his feet. His accuracy is also up 5% on last season when passing and has taken him above his rivals.
“He has been very good and today [against Brighton] was a big test. Obviously Brighton thought ‘let’s pick Joe Gomez for the long ball challenge with Murray’ and Joe did really well. I don’t think he made one foul. He won maybe 70-80% of those duels. Joe did really well. He is a good footballer. I like how his confidence is growing as well. His speed is good, and there are a lot of nice things for us.”
With Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip closing in on returns to fitness after spells on the sidelines through injuries, it seems they may have a fight on their hands. At just 21 years of age, it is clear that Gomez has youth on his side, though his lack of experience may benefit World Cup finalist Lovren in some instances.
Yet, Klopp is unlikely to make such calls. Having put his faith in Trent Alexander-Arnold last season, even as the team reached a Champions League final, it seems unlikely that such inexperience with Gomez would put him off maintaining faith in a player who is continually producing the goods.
Gomez is yet to face a real test in his time in the team, with trips to Leicester and then Tottenham next up likely to pose major challenges up against Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane. That could be the moment that proves to make or break Gomez’s bid to become first choice in the Reds’ back-line in 2018/19.
There is not much more that Gomez could have done until now, with composed and assured displays. It is not a surprise that Gareth Southgate is considering a recall to the England squad for the youngster and if he has done enough to justify to the England boss that he is one of the nation’s brightest talents, then it should be light work convincing Klopp of what he can offer.
With neither Lovren nor Matip fully convincing the Anfield faithful in recent years since joining from Southampton and Schalke, Gomez’s development is more than welcome. Having proven his versatility at both left-back and right-back in the past, he is finally getting his chance in his preferred position and has shown what he can offer.
It would be naive to rule out the Croatian and the German just yet, with both clearly high quality players, but if Klopp is to continue to look towards the long-term, there can be no denying that Gomez is the solution. Based on his recent form and partnership, a Gomez-Van Dijk duo could be the central defensive pairing to lead the club through the next five to ten years at least.