Joe Gomez has won everything there is to win with Liverpool (bar the Europa League, which he could win this season).
There was the Champions League in 2018/19, Premier League in 2019/20 and FA Cup and League Couple double in 2021/22.
It’s a career that most professionals – even at the elite level – would trade everything for. Yet, for Gomez, it has not been the smoothest of journeys. There have been constant injury issues for the 11-cap England centre back, dating back to his first season at the club being cut short by a cruciate ligament injury to ankle surgery in 2018/19 keeping him off the pitch for over 100 days.
It has left him slipping down the pecking order at Anfield. Joël Matip – who himself has suffered with constant injuries – is often preferred, and the arrival of Ibrahima Konaté from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2021 has seen him become the dominant force next to Virgil van Dijk. This has left consistent game time hard to come by for the former Charlton player, who needs to fulfil a number of different roles in order to see minutes on the pitch.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be anything serious, but it has left Jürgen Klopp and his team something of a conundrum. Without a natural replacement – Calvin Ramsay is on loan at Preston (and injured again), while Conor Bradley (also currently injured) is a promising young right back, but still inexperienced at the top level.
This has left Liverpool fielding Gomez in the right back role in recent weeks.
Now, this isn’t a position that is unfamiliar to him. According to his Transfermarkt profile, he has made 75 appearances at right back. Yet these were in more traditional right back roles, asked to stay wide and with more emphasis on him being a ‘defender’. After well documented struggles, the clubs right back position was altered to fit Alexander-Arnold’s qualities. With him not there, it becomes difficult to maintain the inverting the right back into a midfield pivot tactic.
In recent weeks – and particularly against West Ham on Sunday – Gomez has been asked to play right back, and the tactical nuances of the position have not changed.
Above is Gomez’s average position (he is the number two) and heatmap – via SofaScore. While Gomez is the widest positioned player on Liverpool’s right-hand side, he’s still much narrower than you’d expect from a right back. This was partially down to Klopp’s tactics on the day, knowing that width and crossing isn’t an optimal tactic against Moyes’ West Ham side.
Against Wolves, Gomez played in a similar role. Yet he looked shaky, especially in the first half. As Gary O’Neil’s side pressed high and attacked Liverpool with intent early on, Gomez was caught out repeatedly. Pedro Neto managed to expose him, repeatedly running directly at Gomez. It left the London-born defender winning just 38% of his ground duels (3/8) and ineffective when on the ball (completing just one progressive carry and five progressive passes).
There was a noticeable improvement in his second half at Molineux as Wolves sat back and Liverpool brought on attacking reinforcements, yet it was at home to West Ham where he finally looked like he settled into his new role.
Gomez was fantastic on Sunday. There were some shaky moments, including losing Michail Antonio who missed a free header at 0-0 and he was slow to get back for Jarrod Bowen’s equaliser (although he wouldn’t have prevented that from happening, this is merely an observation). But overall, he was efficient in possession, dealt with West Ham well in transition and positioned himself smartly throughout.
Let’s start with the bread and butter of Gomez’s game – his off the ball stuff.
We’ve already seen his positioning above, dealing with the wide areas but also coming inside when asked to do so. Defensively he competed in nine duels, winning eight of those. He won six out of seven on the ground and two from two in the air. Part of what made Gomez so good in his ‘prime’ was his proactiveness, able to hunt down the ball while van Dijk was the sitting defender.
Gomez – acting as something in between an outside right centre back and defensive midfielder – is able to be more proactive in his approach. There is less emphasis on him to be in a set position and is allowed some more freedom in picking when to go after his man and when to sit.
Another part of Gomez’s game that stood out for so long is his recovery pace, but after countless injuries he can’t quite get to the speed he used to be able to. It’s left him more vulnerable as a central defender, and having two central defenders alongside him leaves him to do the stuff he’s still extremely good at. This new role also covers him aerially – an area where he’s always struggled (his career average is 56.5% in aerial duel success). He is competing in less per ninety on average than he ever has (small sample size klaxon) at just over two per ninety, winning 87.5% of these.
Shielding Gomez’s defensive frailties is all well and good, but in order to be a right back in Liverpool’s system in its current form you need to be good on the ball. It’s not something that Gomez is known for, that has always been Liverpool’s fullbacks’ area of strength.
© Proshots – Joe Gomez
Let’s not get it twisted, Gomez is, and will never be, Trent Alexander-Arnold (nobody ever will). Anyone that comes into replace him in the starting line-up will be different, given the Liverpudlian’s unique skillset. What Gomez showed on Sunday was encouraging. The biggest strength in his in-possession game is carrying. Against West Ham Gomez completed two of his three carries forward, putting together 127 yards worth of progressive carrying (the total distance he moved the ball towards the opposition goal through his dribbling).
The moment that got everyone on their feet was when he ventured from his starting right back position into a central midfield area, bouncing Antonio off him in the process.
The way he’s able to spin Bowen and retain possession while being holding off the extremely strong Antonio is exceptional. He then follows this up with the freedom to be allowed to drive up the pitch knowing there is a base of Matip and van Dijk behind him to cover. He drives to the edge of the box before releasing the ball in behind the full-back to Díaz. The pass could be better, but it showed a glimpse of what he can offer in possession.
His ability to drive forward into space is efficient and effective. His passing against West Ham was good if a little safe (a general theme of Gomez’s game). Being a centre back, punching balls into the wide players and midfield, is very different to passing the ball in more advanced areas. While he won’t need to ever be the most creative passer, he will need to work on that area if he wants to be more consistent in that position.
In an ideal world Liverpool would have more of a like for like replacement waiting in the wings if Alexander-Arnold is injured or suspended. Yet, for someone that looked like there was an expiry date on their Liverpool career coming soon, there is a possibility that with the ridiculous amount of football coming up, Gomez can have a new lease of life as an alternative option at right back.
His performance against West Ham was so impressive that even my Dad – someone I’d describe as an avid Joe Gomez hater – was singing his praises by Sunday evening.