Our Man In Cologne (10/03/16)

Schalke’s sporting director Horst Heldt wasn’t exaggerating when he said his team’s 3-1 win at FC Köln could have been a 4-4 draw. A whopping 35 shots were pinged in at his team’s goal, but in the middle of the mayhem was Schalke centre back and new Liverpool signing Joel Matip.

“He’s our best player and one of the best centre backs in Germany,” goalkeeper and team-mate Ralf Fährmann told The Set Pieces.

“I think Jerome Boateng is the best [centre back] in the league but I think he (Matip) comes straight after or even level with him.”

There’s a certain weight to Fährmann’s opinion too given his own performances this season. Only Manuel Neuer was ahead of the Schalke stopper when well-respected German football magazine kicker published their rankings of the best players in the division at the turn of the year.

On Saturday though, he was peerless, making a series of excellent saves and even receiving a one from kicker, which is a good thing. In Germany, you’ll see players marked in the media between one and six. A six means you’ve had a shocker whilst a one means you’ve been outstanding and that was the word coach André Breitenreiter used to describe his performance.

Matip received a 2,5 which didn’t quite live up to Fährmann’s billing but he didn’t make any errors of note which spoke of the consistency Toni Lieto told me about before the game.

He’s the Schalke reporter for kicker and when a player comes over to the Schalke press corps in the tunnel, Lieto is easy to spot. He’s the guy asking most of the questions.

When it comes to Matip, he stresses how key a player he is for Schalke. That was emphasised too when chatting in the press room before the game with Elmar Redemann and Manfred Hendriock of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s biggest regional title.

But beware Liverpool fans because while they and Lieto unanimously agreed he’ll be a good signing, they also said you can expect around three big mistakes from him per season.

One such error came at the end of February. As Schalke were knocked out of the Europa League by Shakhtar Donetsk, Matip bent down to make a weak header after a flick on, with the visitors Taison putting him under pressure. Matip lost his balance and before he could recover, Taison had nipped in to set up the away side’s second.

They also highlighted Matip’s physical strength as another potential weakness, saying they think he’ll need to improve it before heading to the Premier League and you can understand what they mean. For a guy who is six foot four, he’s quite slight but he does not rely on strength. He had little trouble in holding off the bulkier presence of 1. FC Köln’s Anthony Modeste, such is the way that uses his body.

The club’s sporting director Horst Heldt meanwhile praised his ability in the air, which was also visible on Saturday, whether it was heading away a corner or getting on the end of one. He’s certainly helped by the precise set piece delivery of midfielder Johannes Geis but it’s easy to see how Matip, since scoring on his Bundesliga debut at Bayern back in November 2009, has gone onto notch up another 22 goals for the club.

His character will be equally valuable to Liverpool too. “He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in football. He’s always there for you, always willing to lend an ear,” said Fährmann.

“Even if I make a mistake, he’s willing to take the blame to support me. England can be very happy to have him in the Premier League.”

Liverpool’s gain of a player who will take responsibility is Schalke’s loss and a big one too as Horst Heldt explained to The Set Pieces.

“It’s always annoying when a player with quality leaves us. We tried for a long time to stop him leaving us but in the end, Joel Matip decided he wants to do something else and to go in a different direction. In this case, money didn’t play a role and we just have to accept it.

“If Schalke played in the Premeir League, he would have stayed. That’s unfortunately not an option for Schalke,” said Heldt with a smile.

He reflects too that the players have laughed a lot with Matip over the years and Fährmann can remember one such occasion.

Matip has played every minute for Schalke in the Bundesliga this season. The only game he’s missed for the club through injury was a Europa League group game. The problem then was lumbago, more simply known as lower back pain, and that has hit him at a bad moment in the changing room before as Fährmann recounted.

“He was in his underwear, trying to put his socks on and then all of a sudden, he got this lower back pain and couldn’t move anywhere. So he was at the mercy of the team,” smirks Fährmann who chose not to expand about what happened next.

Liverpool will just no doubt hope that should the lower back pain return, it stays in the dressing room too. They’ve had enough injury problems recently but in all seriousness, his durability is nothing to worry about. On Friday night at Hertha BSC, he’ll make his 250th appearance for Schalke and he’s only 24. On top of that, he’s heading to Merseyside on a free transfer. With his best years still ahead of him too, Liverpool look to have made a very smart move indeed.

You can follow Archie Rhind-Tutt on Twitter (@ArchieRT1)

Our Man In Cologne (10/03/16)
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