Joe Gomez’s shoulders sank when Raul Jimenez peeled off the back of him for Wolves’ equaliser. No wonder. It was a rare experience for the young defender. This was the first Premier League goal that Liverpool have conceded with Gomez on the pitch since Teemu Pukki found the net in a 4-1 win over Norwich on the opening day of the season.
There were 724 minutes between the two goals. Seven consecutive clean sheets since Gomez returned to the line-up at right-back in the 3-0 win over Bournemouth in December. But it is at the heart of the Liverpool defence that Gomez has excelled over the past six weeks. Seven games, all won. A run that has taken Liverpool to the brink of the title.
Jurgen Klopp was a little harsh on him in the press conference after the game. When asked for his assessment of Gomez’s efforts after seeing his defence resist a Wolves team that were throwing everything they could at them at Molineux, he said: “First of all, I expect that from Joe. Secondly, I saw a few things from Joe that he could do better.
“He, like the team, still has things he can do better.”
Such are the demands of a manager who has now guided this extraordinary group of players to 40 Premier League games without defeat. Thirty-five of them have been victories.
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Even on the eve of the game, Klopp was talking of the need to improve concentration levels, a quality that is particularly important in defenders. “As a centre-half in a really good team, you have the ball at your feet more than you have defensive challenges but when you have a defensive challenge it’s the most important in the whole game,” he explained.
Not many teams test a defence like Wolves do. “They are so different to everything else we face during the year,” said Klopp afterwards. In the opening five minutes of the second half, Gomez had to win a fierce duel with Jimenez and move swiftly to cut out Jonny Otto’s surprise run in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold from the wing-back position.
It was the threat of Adama Traore that undid Gomez and Liverpool soon after, but he was not alone in that. Jimenez evaded Georginio Wijnaldum and Andrew Robertson in the build-up, while Virgil van Dijk was no nearer to cutting out the cross than his junior counterpart. In truth, the task of dealing with Traore would have been far tougher without Gomez.
He was the one who swept round to cover with a quarter of an hour remaining and Traore bearing down on Alisson’s goal. Van Dijk has it all but Gomez’s pace is still a welcome addition to Liverpool’s back line. Theirs is a partnership that has developed in recent weeks.
Gomez recently borrowed a line from Sky Sports’ own Jamie Carragher in describing Van Dijk as his “big brother” on the pitch. He went on to say: “He’s such a dominant character, a dominant player. I don’t think it’s easy to measure what he does for us as a team.”
Van Dijk’s contribution is not easy to measure because he has not missed a minute of Liverpool’s Premier League season. Perhaps the best method will be to count the awards – both individual and collective – that will inevitably come his way in the spring. But Gomez’s impact on Liverpool’s defence is a little more straightforward to assess.
It is not so long ago that Klopp was being asked questions about Liverpool’s high defensive line and a worrying run of eight games without a clean sheet in the Premier League. The wins kept coming but that sort of defensive fragility was not seen as sustainable.
Gomez’s return to the team coincided with the turnaround. Liverpool have conceded 13 Premier League goals without him this season but only two when he is on that pitch.
He has made that high defensive line work. He has stepped up. That had not seemed likely after a shaky start against Norwich, a performance that saw Joel Matip restored for the trip to Southampton. It was only an injury to Matip that necessitated Gomez’s return. The subsequent loss of Dejan Lovren and Fabinho put huge responsibility on his shoulders.
Klopp was well aware that it could have been a problem.
“We played through the toughest period of the season with two centre-halves and our fifth centre-half, Fabinho, who can play the position was injured as well so it was really tough.”
It demanded growth. He is still Van Dijk’s little brother, of course. But the Dutchman has not been his only defensive partner in this period. For the clean sheet against Everton in the FA Cup, Gomez was playing alongside Nat Phillips and expected to take on a lead role. “He was organising the whole defence for maybe the first time in his life,” said Klopp.
At 22, it was just another part of his development. Klopp said of his team this week that “there is a lot of space for improvement” and that seems incredible given how good they have been. It is 94 points from a possible 96 now. Manchester City’s total of 100 points in a season is under threat. So is Arsenal’s achievement of going the whole campaign unbeaten.
But perhaps it is Gomez, alongside the even younger Alexander-Arnold, who holds the key to that improvement.
Almost everywhere else you look with this Liverpool team, there is a player who is at the peak of his powers. It is almost impossible to believe there is scope for more. That is not true of Gomez and maybe that is what Klopp was getting at in his post-match comments.