Cologne - With three goals and as many assists in 11 appearances in all competitions so far this season, FC Schalke 04’s Joel Matip is far from your average defender.
The Cameroon international has been integral to the Royal Blues' revival under Andre Breitenreiter, making headlines for all the right reasons at both ends of the pitch.
Nose for goal
"I was playing for the youth team when my coach Norbert Elgert had the idea to put me up front," Matip recalled in a recent interview with schalke04.de. "I played there for six months and it was a success. I even scored with my feet - not just my head. Then after being out for a long time with injury, I went straight into the senior team, where I was once again used as a defender because it's what I know best."
Indeed, since taking his Bundesliga bow in a 2-1 defeat to Bayer 04 Leverkusen on 5 February 2009, Matip has gone on to make 228 top-flight appearances, 156 of which have come in his preferred starting position at the heart of defence. The 24-year-old has also moonlighted as a left-back, right-back and holding midfielder, but has almost always managed to put his attacking qualities to good use, scoring at least twice in all but one of his six full seasons as a professional.
In sync with Geis
True to form, Matip already has two goals and three assists to show for the first eight matches of the current Bundesliga campaign. On Matchday 1, it was his passes that helped Schalke take a two-goal lead away to SV Werder Bremen. Against 1. FSV Mainz 05, he opened the scoring from a Johannes Geis cross, before turning provider for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. And against Eintracht Frankfurt, it was Geis once again teeing up the Royal Blues' towering Knappenschmiede academy product for another trademark header.
"Obviously there are other players who score more often than me, but I’m delighted to have scored a few already this season," Matip said with a smile. "Geisi is just brilliant from crosses and free kicks. We practise our link-up play almost every day so that it becomes almost second nature to us. It's the same whether we’re playing Mario Kart on the computer or we're out on the pitch [laughs]."
Schalke on the up
In this instance, however, it is out on the hallowed green turf that Matip, Geis and Schalke are really beginning to hit their straps. Die Knappen missed out on a place in the UEFA Champions League for the first time in three years after winning just five of their 17 Bundesliga matches after the 2014/15 winter break, but are already well on the way to setting that unwanted record straight this campaign.
Matip's all-round displays have been one of many early-season highlights for the Gelsenkirchen club, currently just a point behind second-placed Borussia Dortmund and with a two-point cushion on fourth-in-the-table Hertha Berlin. At this rate, they will be back in Europe’s elite club competition in no time at all.