It went largely unnoticed during a period of upheaval at Anfield, but Joe Gomez became Liverpool’s longest-serving player this summer.
The London-born centre-back is the only remaining member of Jurgen Klopp’s squad who made his debut during Brendan Rodgers’ reign. Yet the fact that he’s only clocked up 176 appearances eight years after arriving on Merseyside from Charlton Athletic for £6million ($7.6m in today’s exchange) tells its own story.
One of the most gifted English defenders of his generation, Gomez has spent far too long sitting and watching events unfold. He’s been dogged by misfortune meaning his Liverpool story has largely been one of potential unfulfilled.
There was the ruptured anterior cruciate ligament he suffered on England Under-21s duty shortly after Klopp’s appointment in October 2015. That was followed by a serious Achilles problem, ankle surgery and a fractured leg. Some dark days, crushing setbacks and gruelling rehabilitation programmes.
However, on each occasion, Gomez dug deep and fought his way back into contention. His quality shone through during the Premier League title-winning season of 2019-20 when he flourished alongside Virgil van Dijk, but the following campaign was wrecked by a patella tendon injury that required surgery. He hasn’t added to his 11 England caps since October 2020.
When Liverpool reached three major cup finals in 2021-22, he didn’t feature in any of them. Last season, he was largely fit but frequently overlooked — Klopp’s fourth-choice centre-back behind Van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate and Joel Matip.
The calibre and reliability of Liverpool’s options in that department have been a hot topic of debate among supporters this summer.
As the club embarked on an extensive midfield rebuild — the signing of Ryan Gravenberch from Bayern Munich on deadline day took the overall outlay to £145million – no defensive reinforcements were sought.
It’s a major gamble, especially considering the injury issues which have hampered Konate. The France international is a class act but has featured in just 55 out of 119 games in all competitions since his £36million move from RB Leipzig in 2021.
With Nat Phillips (Celtic), Rhys Williams (Aberdeen) and Sepp van den Berg (Mainz) all out on loan, Klopp is heavily reliant on Gomez and Matip to stay fit and ease the burden on Van Dijk. Academy graduate Jarell Quansah, who has made rapid progress since a loan spell at Bristol Rovers last season, is effectively the fifth-choice centre-back.
Van Dijk’s suspension — twinned with Konate’s absence due to injury — meant that Sunday’s visit of Aston Villa provided an earlier-than-expected test of that depth. Unai Emery’s side had scored eight goals in their opening three league games with the double act of Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby proving a real handful.
But there was no weak link for Villa to exploit. Gomez, who was making just his third start in all competitions since February in place of Van Dijk, excelled. This felt like an important step forward for him.
Calm and commanding, the 26-year-old had more touches (121) than anyone else on the field. He completed 103 of his 108 passes (95 per cent) and won five of his seven duels (71 per cent), as well as making one tackle, two interceptions and a clearance.
When Diaby dropped deeper, Gomez followed him and repeatedly got the better of Villa’s summer signing from Bayer Leverkusen. Klopp applauded enthusiastically on the touchline.
Aside from one brain freeze that led to conceding a corner, Matip could also hold his head high having helped nullify the threat of Watkins. Like Gomez, he was combative and played on the front foot.
With the former Cameroon international out of contract next summer, Liverpool had considered effectively signing his replacement 12 months in advance who they could bed in over the course of this season. However, unable to get the right option at the right price, they opted to stick with what they’ve got.
“Both centre-halves played an exceptional game with different jobs,” said Klopp, who was celebrating his 300th Premier League game as Liverpool manager. “Diaby hiding in midfield in the No 10 position, Joey had to step in there. That left Joel in a one-v-one with Ollie Watkins. And as much as I love Joel, I think we know Ollie Watkins might be a bit quicker. We dealt with that well. The boys in front knew about that fact and were really in the situation with the counter-pressing moments.
“I am really pleased for Joey. It was like that when he came on against Newcastle (a weak earlier). It’s very helpful when you have strong centre-halves, but if you leave them alone then the pitch is too big to defend. Today we were really together, really compact. The commitment was top class.”
After all the noise around Mohamed Salah’s future and Liverpool rejecting a £150million bid from Al Ittihad, this emphatic triumph was the perfect tonic going into the international break.
Klopp’s side delivered their most complete performance of the season as Villa had no answer to the energy and intensity. It was built on firm foundations.
The centre-backs were certainly helped by the control provided by the midfield trio of Alexis Mac Allister, Curtis Jones and Dominik Szoboszlai, who expertly fired them in front with his first goal for the club.
How Trent Alexander-Arnold embraced the captaincy in the absence of Van Dijk, his exquisite range of passing repeatedly exposing Villa’s high line before his afternoon was ended early by a hamstring problem which is set to rule him out of England duty.
After Matty Cash’s own goal, fittingly Salah wrapped up the points when he became the first player to score or assist in 10 consecutive top-flight appearances since he last achieved that feat in 2021. Anfield left the Egyptian in no doubt about how badly they want him to stick around.
Liverpool can’t match the money on offer in Saudi but the rich potential of Klopp’s new-look team is clear. Ten points out of a possible 12 and a first clean sheet of the season achieved with Gomez providing a timely reminder of what he’s got to offer.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)