Forget Sadio Mane, Joel Matip absence is what’s truly hurting Liverpool

Liverpool‘s sluggish start to the Premier League season continued as they were defeated 2-1 by fierce rivals Manchester United on Monday, the loss likely prompting some regret over Sadio Mane‘s sale even though it is the absence of centre-back Joel Matip that is truly hurting the Reds.

African champions Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy endured a disastrous weekend for Chelsea while Mohammed Kudus‘s cameo for Ajax Amsterdam may have extinguished rumours that he’s on the brink of a transfer to Everton.

No one expected Liverpool would struggle early this season in the Premier League — they’re without a win in their first three matches for the first time in a decade — and Monday’s 2-1 defeat by United has set some alarm bells ringing on Merseyside.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that Liverpool’s decision to sell Mane, rather than insist he see out the final year of his deal at Anfield, has come under question, but their slow start to the campaign — they’re currently 16th, and one of only five teams without a win — is in stark contrast to Mane’s seamless adaptation to life at Bayern Munich.

After netting in the Bavarians’ 5-3 Super Cup victory over RB Leipzig, Mane has scored three goals in his first three German Bundesliga outings — including a double in Sunday’s 7-0 demolition of VfL Bochum.

No player in the German top flight has scored more goals than Mane this season, and even Mohamed Salah‘s customary goal against United on Monday cannot shake the sense that the Anfield giants are lacking their typical menace going forward.

Injuries to Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcantara, as well as Darwin Nunez‘s suspension, have been mitigating factors, of course, but there has been little of Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football during the early stages of this season.

Against United, Liverpool were outrun, failed to register even a corner inside the first near-half hour, and failed to muster any creativity in midfield.

So often previously it was Mane, in these moments, who would knit things together in the final third, beguile opposition defences with sharp movements and intelligent use of the ball; on Monday, a furious volley was all that Salah could muster before his late consolation goal. Salah’s goal was his 10th against United — more than any other Liverpool player in history — but there was never any danger that he would repeat last season’s hat-trick performance at the Theatre of Dreams.

“I know people don’t wanna say it,” ex-England striker Darren Bent wrote on Twitter, “and yes they have a lot of injuries, but Liverpool miss Mane.” Former Arsenal playmaker Paul Merson wrote on Sportskeeda ahead of the fixture: “Sadio Mane is a huge loss for Liverpool. Why sell him for £30 million when you could’ve kept him around for a year and once again fought on all fronts, like they did last Premier League season?”

In time, Jota, Thiago, Nunez and the lively Luis Diaz will surely give Liverpool’s attack the potency they had begun to take for granted, even if it will take considerable time for any of them to rival the departed Senegalese star’s legendary status in the North-West.

For all that Mane’s absence is felt, however, Liverpool have arguably missed African centre-back Matip more during the opening weeks of the season.

Liverpool had the joint-best defensive record in the league last term, with Matip a key part of a watertight defensive unit.

He arguably eclipsed Virgil van Dijk at the heart of the backline last season, demonstrating composure, anticipation and impressive resolve as the Reds pushed for an unprecedented quadruple.

Without Matip, Van Dijk has appeared more ruffled and rattled than at any previous point during his Anfield career; the Cameroon international’s contribution in the opposition box has also been missed.

Matip, admittedly, struggled against Manchester City in the Community Shield, and against Fulham in the 2020 champions’ league opener, but his injury-enforced absence between Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold left a chasm between the pair that United exploited regularly.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, the unswerving Matip faces a further month on the sidelines after picking up what Klopp describes as a “strange” injury.

“How it happened [I don’t know, he] didn’t feel anything in training, walked in then said ‘yeah, there is something’,” Klopp told said in his post-match press conference. “[Now’s he’s] out for, I don’t know, three weeks, four weeks, whatever.”

It’s concerning that Matip’s injury appears to have been caused without contact with another player, and coming opponents AFC Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Everton will look to exploit a Reds defence that hasn’t looked so vulnerable since Van Dijk missed almost all of the 2020-21 season.

While Merseysiders find themselves misty-eyed remembering Mane’s impact in Liverpool’s attack, two of the Bayern new boy’s international teammates endured a weekend to forget as Chelsea were demolished 3-0 by Leeds United.

It’s hard to know which of the Blues’ Senegalese duo endured a tougher afternoon.

Mendy’s howler set the ball rolling for the hosts, attempting a Cruyff turn despite the advancing pressure from Brenden Aaronson having been caught in two minds about clearing to Reece James. The Africa Cup of Nations-winning keeper was easily dispossessed and the Leeds new boy finished from close range.

“[Mendy] knows himself, with these kind of mistakes,” Thomas Tuchel said after the match. “I don’t know if it is necessary to speak a lot [to him]. He knows it’s a mistake. Everybody in the world sees that mistake and it is a huge mistake in a crucial time of the match. It does not help. He is the one who is most disappointed. It cost us a lot today.”

The goalkeeper’s form dipped in the latter months of this year, and he as much as anyone else in the Chelsea defensive unit will surely benefit if the Blues escalate their pursuit of Leicester City‘s Wesley Fofana.

There was to be more misery for his international colleague Koulibaly, who showed little of the tenacity, control and power that characterised his display against Tottenham Hotspur the previous weekend.

Koulibaly had struggled to deal with Aaronson in the channels before the fresh legs of substitute Joe Gelhardt ended his afternoon prematurely, the centre-back inexplicably hauling the striker down to earn his second yellow of the day. It was a mindless moment, with Gelhardt still far from Chelsea’s goal and the game already beyond the visitors anyway.

“It’s a bit of a reflection of the frustration, and it cannot happen,” Tuchel said. “We cannot get frustrated in games.”

Ex-Chelsea winger Pat Nevin was even harsher on the ex-Napoli man. “Koulibaly has absolutely no excuse,” he said on BBC Radio Five Live. “That is bizarre behaviour from a defender.”

The West African will now miss Chelsea’s next league game, at home against Leicester City on Saturday.

In the Dutch Eredivisie, Ghana‘s Kudus made his third substitute appearance for Ajax this season when he came off the bench in the 1-0 victory against Sparta Rotterdam.

The victory wasn’t as convincing as Ajax’s recent wins, with Kudus’s compatriot Brian Brobbey striking the woodwork before he was replaced by the Black Stars midfielder.

Kudus was introduced despite ongoing rumours linking him with a move to Everton during the final week of the transfer window, with the reigning Dutch champions appearing to expect the 22-year-old to remain with them beyond the end of the month.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Ajax boss Alfred Schreuder told Voetbal International. “I think he should not leave. You can see that he is important. We need a lot of good players.”

However, it remains to be seen if the ex-Nordsjaelland man will be content with his current bench role.

“We spoke with him three times, because he also thinks he should play,” Schreuder said. “He’s disappointed now and then, but it’s about whether you can control that emotion for the team. He handles that well.”

Elsewhere in Europe’s biggest leagues, Victor Osimhen made it two goals in two matches as Napoli defeated Monza 4-0 to continue their strong start to the Italian Serie A season. Cameroon’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa provided the assist for Osimhen, who slammed home beyond Michele Di Gregorio.

Achraf Hakimi scored in Paris Saint-Germain ‘s 7-1 demolition of Lille in French Ligue 1 — meeting a Neymar pass to turn home — while Congolese striker Jackson Muleka scored his first goal for Besiktas as they downed Fatih Karagumruk 4-1 at home in the Turkish Supa Lig.

Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Mbaye Diagne also netted in the Turkish fixture, but it was a particularly special occasion for Muleka, who was still playing in his homeland with TP Mazembe less than 24 months ago.

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