Joe Gomez did not enjoy the game time he may have hoped for Liverpool in 2021/22, but it was far from a campaign of doom and gloom for a player still yet to peak.
When Gomez stepped towards the touchline in Innsbruck on July 29, alongside his long-term defensive partner Virgil van Dijk, it was a truly significant moment.
Two of the biggest casualties of Liverpool’s horrendous run of injuries during their title defence, Gomez and Van Dijk made their long-awaited returns in a 4-3 friendly loss to Hertha Berlin.
The younger of the pair had missed eight months with a freak knee injury suffered in training with the England national team – the latest in a series of long-term setbacks.
It was a landmark for Gomez and Van Dijk, who went on to make two more appearances each for Liverpool in pre-season.
But while Van Dijk soon picked up where he left off as the Reds’ centre-back general, things were much slower for Gomez throughout the campaign just gone – leading to a spell of uncertainty.
Joe Gomez, 2020/21
Started: 11 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 10
Unused sub: 28
Overall Season Rating: 7.12
An unwanted role
“This is probably the most challenging one, for sure,” Gomez reflected on his 261-day layoff with a ruptured patellar tendon, in an interview in August.
He added: “It’s been mentally really challenging in the sense that having to rebuild my body this many times.
“I think some players sometimes when it happens we see it as a project, a chance to come back better, stronger and I had that many setbacks and warnings I was already so grateful to be fit and to be playing, I didn’t really need the reminder at the time.”
It is hard not to feel sympathy for Gomez, one of the most humble characters in the Liverpool squad, with four major injuries to contend with in his seven seasons at Anfield so far.
In that respect, that he was able to return and play a part in a relentless campaign should be considered a victory in its own right.
But while he looked forward to a “fresh start,” there is no doubt Gomez will have been disappointed with the lack of minutes afforded to him upon his return.
He made 21 appearances in all competitions – remarkably, the fourth-most in his seven terms with the club – but was limited to only 11 starts.
Nineteen players clocked more minutes than Gomez (1,022), including January signing Luis Diaz, with Van Dijk (4,530) one of three to play over four times the amount of his fellow centre-back.
It was to be a bit-part role for Liverpool’s No. 12, then, but to his credit, whenever called upon he largely delivered.
Gomez was solid if unspectacular in his first two starts of the season against AC Milan and Norwich – wearing the captain’s armband in the League Cup win over the Canaries – before letting his standards slip against Preston and Leicester.
In those two outings, he was culpable of sleepwalking at times and, as a result, gifted chances that should have been easily avoided.
One of seven changes to Klopp’s lineup, he took up duties as right-back and shone: robust, full of energy, clinical in possession and showing the drive needed when filling in for the world’s best in that position.
His crossing had improved, as had his judgement on the ball, while time spent honing his long-range passing over the summer clearly paid off.
That seemed to convince the manager of his abilities out wide, with five of his six starts between that 3-1 victory and the end of the season coming at right-back.
He was the standout performer on a surprisingly tough night at Nottingham Forest, even going close to breaking his seven-season duck in front of goal, and followed that up with another strong showing against Watford 13 days later.
A more functional night against Benfica was up next, before a sensational display in the 1-0 victory over Newcastle that kept Liverpool’s title hopes alive at the end of April.
After that game, Gomez acknowledged the value of his supporting role, ensuring Liverpool “stay at it” despite a number of changes to the starting lineup ahead of the Champions League semi-final decider at Villarreal.
It may not have been the role Gomez hoped for upon his return from injury, but it is crucial to note that not every player recovers as quickly as Van Dijk did.
In a way, one of the biggest positives of the campaign was the optimism he showed after a potentially damaging injury on his final start of the season at Southampton.
Gomez avoided a serious issue that night at St Mary’s, but it could have been far worse.
And shrugging off those freak collisions is a big hurdle for any player on the comeback trail, let alone one treading it for the fourth time.
The season just gone should be considered a frontier for Gomez, then, rather than a marker of his long-term standing under Klopp.
A two-fold challenge
All signs are that, despite his lack of minutes throughout the campaign, Gomez will not only be staying at Liverpool beyond the summer, but also extending his contract.
That can only be considered a positive for the Reds, with the 25-year-old still one of the best defenders in the Premier League regardless of injuries.
But if he does pledge his future to Anfield as expected, he will do so on the understanding that there is a big challenge ahead.
Not only are Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate firmly cemented as top-level options ahead of him in the centre-back pecking order, but Klopp has also moved to bring in Calvin Ramsay as a like-for-like backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.
That would suggest that Gomez’s end-of-season niche as an improving right-back may have been erased, though he is undoubtedly a player who thrives in adversity.
Leapfrogging the likes of Matip, Konate and Ramsay is not out of the question by any means, but Gomez will need to take his new-found tools and that hardened mental strength into battle with him next season.
Best moment: A Man of the Match performance at right-back against Newcastle
Worst moment: The lack of starts
Role next season: Realistically, fourth choice – but a battle with Matip and Konate awaits