Simply put, Joe Gomez is a warrior. Still just 21, he has already had to endure 444 days out through injury. A cruciate ligament injury can end the career of even the most promising of players in a heartbeat; when this is compounded by Achilles tendon problems just months later, experience dictates that hopes of making it at the top level should be gone. It was therefore with some trepidation that Liverpool fans watched on as the young Englishman came on for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the dying minutes of the opening day against Watford in 2017/18. Fears that the prospect, who had been labelled ‘the next Rio Ferdinand’ at Charlton, would never be the same were compounded when an error allowed Watford to make it 3-3 in the 93rd minute. However, Gomez had already been through hell with his rehabilitation: it would take more than one mistake to keep him down.
Sure enough, in the very next game, he excelled in a victory and clean sheet over Crystal Palace. Soon he had established himself as a highly competent rotation option with Alexander-Arnold on the right of the back four. Some of his performances were almost unbelievably mature for a player who had been robbed of a vital stage of development but somehow, Gomez had come back even better than before the injuries. Equally encouraging was the blistering recovery pace Gomez exhibited on multiple occasions.
One need only look as far as Daniel Sturridge to see what serious injuries can do to a player’s speed, but thankfully the young defender had not lost one of his key attributes. The only slight cause for concern was the regularity with which Gomez was having to rely on this agility to make amends. His first full season with the first team was scattered with instances of positional naivety.
Then again, right-back is not Joe Gomez’s position. Even the most seasoned professionals can struggle when asked to adapt to a new role but Gomez was thriving. Nonetheless, it was clear that his future should certainly lie in his natural position in the heart of defence to bring the best out of him. This was where he had emerged as a teenager, and where he was deployed in the England youth setups. Jürgen Klopp himself alluded to the lack of options at right-back as a significant reason for Gomez’s continued deployment in that position.
This patience has been rewarded handsomely at the start of the latest campaign. Gomez, who had impressed sufficiently to be in contention for England’s senior team, was cruelly denied a potential place in the World Cup squad by yet more injury trouble. The national team’s loss was Liverpool’s gain, as Gomez came back from the summer in excellent shape and raring to go. He was thrown in from the start, finally returning to the position where he had primarily made his name at Charlton. It is, in a strange way, fitting that on this occasion Gomez should be the beneficiary rather than victim of the injury. Abdominal troubles for Dejan Lovren are at least partly responsible for the young Englishman’s extended run in the side alongside Virgil van Dijk.
Though this partnership was born out of necessity, a strong case can be made that it should survive on merit. The two of them have looked almost impenetrable with clean sheets in the first three games justifying their play. Of course Gomez is profiting from playing alongside the world class van Dijk, but that is not to say that he is being carried by any means. Rather he is learning and growing, while also bringing his own strengths to the table. When the Dutch defender had a poor game against Leicester, it fell to Gomez to ensure that Liverpool held on for the win. A hugely impressive and committed block from a James Maddison shot epitomised his performance. Positional worries are long gone now that he is in his favoured role and Gomez is repeatedly in the right place at the right time to snuff out attacks.
The comparisons to Ferdinand must have seemed very distant to Joe Gomez as he sat out almost the entirety of his debut season with Liverpool in 2015/16. Even as he impressed at right-back in 2016/17, such a lofty praise was hard to understand. Now, although there is still a long way for him to go, it is perfectly clear why Gomez was so highly thought-of from such a young age. Physically, he has it all: tall, strong and lean with huge amounts of pace and a significant amount of aerial ability. Mentally, he has proved himself time and time again with resilience being forged in the fire of injury.
The technique with which he must back all of this up is growing day by day. A pass success rate of close to 88.3% so far this season is a mark of how comfortable Gomez is on the ball and he is only being dribbled past at an average of once every two games. This is particularly remarkable given that he is averaging 0.8 key passes per match. A centre-back creating more chances than he is allowing is highly impressive and will undoubtedly be pleasing to a manager who likes everyone to contribute in all phases of play.
Jürgen Klopp will have a decision on his hands once Lovren returns to full fitness, but Joe Gomez has surely earned his place for the time being. It appears that he has already moved above Joel Matip in the pecking order and in truth his performances warrant a place ahead of Lovren too. Liverpool have found themselves a winning partnership and there is much to be said for stability.
This is not only a positive sign for the club but also for England. Gomez will recover from his World Cup disappointment, just as he has recovered from so much already and could well establish himself as a mainstay in Southgate’s back line. With Trent Alexander-Arnold’s meteoric rise showing few signs of slowing down either, Liverpool are leading the way in young English excellence. The hope now is that this translates to domestic success. If Gomez continues to put in performances as impressive as his first four games this season, there is no reason to doubt that.