Liverpool defender Joe Gomez is not alone in barely playing this season before establishing himself as a crucial starter in the closing weeks.
A Brendan Rodgers signing who started out as Liverpool’s regular left-back before suffering a long-term knee injury, Joe Gomez was the club’s final right-back before Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first-team emergence, then Virgil van Dijk’s centre-half partner for perhaps their finest run of defensive form in the 2019/20 title-winning season. Only five players at Anfield pre-date the Jurgen Klopp era and of those, the 24-year-old is by far the most overlooked in terms of his impact.
Not by his manager, of course. “There are tougher things than being a squad player at the moment for Liverpool,” Klopp noted after running down Gomez’s half-decade list of issues, from a torn ACL in his right knee to a ruptured patella tendon in his left, with Achilles problems, ankle surgery and Covid in between. “The only answer in football is you have to fight through and show you are ready for the moment when the situation changes,” Klopp added; “fight” is certainly not something Gomez has lacked at Liverpool.
But it has taken time for said situation to change. An uncharacteristically resolute Joel Matip and the signing of Ibrahima Konate, who remains unbeaten at Liverpool, has left the club with an embarrassment of central defensive riches in comparison to last year’s relative poverty. Gomez made four starts before the turn of the year: against Milan and then in the first three rounds of the League Cup.
That generated interest from Aston Villa and Newcastle yet Gomez heeded his manager’s advice, preparing for a chance that was unknown but inevitable with the rotation required to compete on four fronts. Alexander-Arnold’s recent absence has afforded an opportunity at right-back and while an average performance in victory over Norwich was understandable, Gomez put in a display – and delivery for Diogo Jota’s goal – worthy of the position against Watford. Klopp and Liverpool will need him.
Manchester City paid £41m for Nathan Ake in August 2020 and are yet to get even £1m an appearance out of the centre-half. His 33 games have been scattered and strewn across positions and competitions and only once has the Dutchman started as many as three consecutive matches. His record could thus be underwhelming, including a 5-2 defeat to Leicester and losses against Leeds, Chelsea, Leipzig and Tottenham, but Ake’s role as expensive understudy means his cost is taken into account long before a lack of rhythm even becomes a consideration.
Ake deserves credit for slowly but surely growing into his place in the squad. A streak of ten straight victories might not sound too impressive in this Manchester City team yet those matches have come in the space of 109 days. To perform for Pep Guardiola’s side at any level is difficult enough; doing it with so many interruptions while knowing standards are not allowed to slip is onerous.
West Ham could have provided a safer and more stable haven in January. Ake instead stayed to give defensive depth in a small squad. That decision has been justified in wins against Brentford, Arsenal, Norwich and Burnley as Guardiola knows Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte have a high-quality deputy in the shadows. As John Stones can attest, any number of goal-line clearances in narrow victories during a tight title race against Liverpool will be cherished.
‘Wolves are ready to listen to offers for Willy Boly in the January window with the Ivorian centre back tumbling down the pecking order under Bruno Lage,’ the Daily Mail claimed in January. Boly had played a single game under the Portuguese manager by that point: a League Cup penalty shootout defeat to Tottenham in September. With injuries and the form of Max Kilman forcing him out of a picture he had helped sketch more than anyone at Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves, the 31-year-old seemed surplus to different Molineux requirements.
It can only be assumed that Wolves will be launching an internal investigation into Boly after he was seen being more joyous than anyone at the culmination of this weekend’s Celebration Police derby. But the Ivorian’s glee was justified considering the hardship that preceded his three starts in four Premier League games. He won more aerial duels than any player in two of those matches and made the most clearances in the other, holding Watford and Aston Villa at bay, while succumbing to the madness of Leeds. Boly has not returned to the top rung of the Wolves defensive ladder but the fact he even has a foot on there is testament to his character and quality.
— Wolves Português (@WolvesPRT) April 3, 2022
“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,” was Paolo Maldini’s sage, career-defining observation. ‘If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake but it’s alright because I’m rapid and my recovery game is solid,’ is the slight but crucial alteration made by Ryan Fredericks. West Ham supporters might have feared the 29-year-old’s presence against Everton but his second Premier League start of the season, while far from perfect, was more than sufficient.
There were murmurs that he might seek to leave in the winter but a contract that expires at the end of the campaign may have persuaded Fredericks to persist for a few more months instead. With West Ham venturing further into the Europa League, opportunities will continue to present themselves, either to earn a deal extension or a move elsewhere. The latter is admittedly far more likely but the carrot of the former suits all parties in the short term.
The spirit of Victor Moses flows through Matt Doherty, the Conference League veteran turned Premier League mainstay. In his debut season at Tottenham, the right-back never started more than three consecutive top-flight games; a goal and assist capped his fifth bout of 90 minutes in six matches against Newcastle on Sunday. Antonio Conte has treasured another manager’s trash again.
“Honestly, at the start he struggled to understand my idea of football and what I wanted from the wing-backs,” the Italian said after Tottenham lifted themselves into the Champions League qualification places. “But when he came into my ideal football, for sure he’s a reliable player because he’s strong defensively and dangerous when he attacks.” Conte seems to be just what the Doc ordered and coach, player and team are all benefiting.
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