Written by Joel Griffiths – @jo3lgriffiths
Ibrahima Konate looks destined for Anfield. The 21-year-old Frenchman, who stands at 6 feet 4 inches, would come in as direct competition for a starting place in Liverpool’s first team next season.
No fan in their right mind would be opposed to adding defensive quality of this prospective level. This year, we have finally been burned by taking calculated risks on number of bodies in key defensive areas. If you gamble on having less than you need, and have 3 first choice centre-halves out with series injuries, this season is the reality of the situation.
Reports emerging from The Athletic’s David Ornstein say that then club are in the process of finalising a deal to bring the RB Leipzig and France youth international to Merseyside. The situation is said to be at an advanced stage and, if everything goes to plan, it would enable Konate to be added to Liverpool’s ranks at the soonest opportunity. It is anticipated that the reds will have to pay the 21-year-old’s release clause — thought to be around €40 million — rather than negotiating a lower price.
Konate coming in could have ripple effects in the back line, particularly for LFC’s growing list of central defensive candidates. If we were to sign the highly rated defender, what would be the knock-on impact for the others?
Virgil Van Dijk
The question of who partners the best centre-back in the world has long been speculated, despite the void being more than admirably filled over the past 18-months by one of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. The question of who succeeds him, has barely been touched on so far, but the long-term injury this season should remind us that even he won’t be around forever, and some long-term thinking is justified.
Ibrahima Konate, in theory, works perfectly in a high press, and so should demonstrate a parallel of Virgil in the right centre-back position. Standing at 6 foot 4, he should possess an Ariel advantage that Gomez doesn’t. The Frenchman is also blessed with a recovery pace that usurps Joel Matip’s, not that he’s typically found wanting in that department. In games against Manchester United in the Champions League earlier this season he showed he was up for a foot race against the likes of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
Perhaps Konate would afford Van Dijk the ability to be less conservative, in the knowledge that there is a backup presence that trumps what Gomez can offer in height and physicality, and also what Matip lacks in pace. The most important thing as far as Virgil is concerned is that in Konate, he would have a partner that has the natural attributes, not to force him to alter his own game. It’s another player who has the potential to learn alongside the world’s best, and claim a permanent partnership, which spans more than half a season.
Matip has proven over his 5-year-stint at the club that he is one of Europe’s finest, but the clichéd asterisk over his fitness remains because, well, it’s true. 13 separate injuries spanning over 551 days, keeping him out of 95 games for the reds has been beyond frustrating for all parties. For many, his function should be solely sporadic, with possible fixtures hand-picked in advance.
Kopites on socials rushed to Konate’s injury record to make comparisons, and claim that he’s as injury prone as the Cameroonian. A myth dispelled by football blogger Anna Woodbury, pointing out that of Ibrahima’s 8 injuries since 17/18, only 5 have led to missed fixtures. Three of those injuries were related to one torn muscle fibre case. So only three differing injury types, as opposed to 8. In the same period of time that Konate missed 46 games through injury, Matip was side-lined for 87.
UNDERSTANDING IBRAHIMA KONATE'S INJURY RECORD
Since the Ornstein story broke that Liverpool are close to signing RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate, fans are debating whether this is a good move given the 21-year-old's injury record, so let's take a closer look… (1/n)
— Anna Woodberry (@anna_woodberry) March 29, 2021
Joel Matip gets niggly injuries, missing fixtures through knocks all around the body. Konate’s injuries are much more isolated, and thus easier to compartmentalised. Age is a huge factor too, at 29 being injury-prone is all but guaranteed for Joel. Theoretically, Konate and Gomez are still able to change this narrative. At 21 and 23 respectively, it’s within reason that they could put their injuries behind them. The same can’t be said for Matip, and I would speculate Konate could push the Cameroonian out of favour with Klopp. I think this move could spell a permanent end for Joel Matip, the question is, who would pay the money he’s worth with his injury record?
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Konate comes in as direct competition for the right centre-back position next to Van Dijk. He’s got the pace, power and defensive positioning to make direct comparisons. Probably shading the physical side, whilst that’s caveated of course, with the fact he would be untried in this specific system.
He is said to have grown up idolising Sergio Ramos and this is reflected in his confidence and unassuming quality for someone of his size. He’s got the attributes to break lines in possession and play vertical passes that suit Leipzig’s fast, transitional playing style. Leipzig, under the stewardship of Julian Nagelsmann, play with their full backs pushed high up the pitch, creating space for Konate to carry the ball into midfield. He backs himself on the ball and has comparable pass completion percentages to all three of Liverpool’s first choice centre-halves. The more prevalent question I think will be, whose attacking play would be the most tangible in terms of goal contribution, when it comes to who is selected.
Where Konate draws similarities to Joe in an attacking sense. He’s got a high-impact/high-octane approach to defensive situations, which deviates from Gomez’s calm-at-all-costs aura (mastered of course by Van Dijk). He’s got an aggression to his game that isn’t quite there in our current crop of centre-backs’ games, or not overtly so anyway. Perhaps taking on the mantle left by Dejan in the summer, a big part of his game are those recovery challenges. Whilst extremely effective in denying the opposition space and regularly resulting in fine last-ditch tackles, Konate’s high impact gait means that he is at a much greater risk of knee and hip damage as well as ankle eversion sprains. While I’ve defended his injury record previously, you’re never 100% sure what is round the corner. A defender that is more likely to be in defensive situations that put him at risk of injury, is surely a factor to consider.
I think the most likely, and probably most favourable option when it comes to Gomez and Konate, would be the long-term succession of Van Dijk, seeing them as a partnership. Liverpool’s best partnerships in my lifetime have consisted of one lad dying for the cause and one lad being the distributor. Think Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypiä. Although that mould has been dispelled to some extent in Klopp’s defensive partnerships, I wonder if we could see a throwback to that sort of scenario. Only this time, with two centre-backs that are both natural ball-carriers, if need be.
The Chasing Pack
Nat Phillips has earned plaudits from in and outside the fan-base, with a string of performances that have elevated him to near cult-heroism. At a desperate time defensively for the reds, he’s proven that he can have good games against top-quality attacking opposition. Even with this, another centre back added to the equation would all but confirm the suspicion that he’s not a long-term solution for Klopp. Konate is arguably as physical, and looks to a much more natural footballer too. It’s likely this acquisition would leave an unassailable climb to even claim a sporadic role in the team, once the injured CB’s return.
Ozan Kabak also strolled into a difficult situation in January, and more often than not, he’s stepped up to mark. The jury is still out by all accounts, but there are talks of a cut-price deal to make his loan deal permanent this summer. It’s difficult to imagine a world where Kabak and Konate aren’t around the squad next term. If Klopp does only want 4 CBs competing for places next season, Konate coming in could lead to Kabak going out on loan, or the sale of Joel Matip. It’s hard to see any club taking a punt on Matip, for obvious reasons, and I just feel we will keep 5 at least until mid-season, because it’s derailed us so dramatically this time.
Ben Davies, a bit of a forgotten man, which is mental given the reaction on Twitter when he signed, is yet to play a minute for Liverpool. It’s unclear right now if Davies came in to give Michael Edwards a bit of bargaining power to sign the lads he really wanted, or if Klopp views him as a player that he can develop into a viable squad member. Right now, those are both equally plausible. I think a loan, at least for 1 season, to a Premier League club is likely, and in everyone’s interest.
Rhys Williams was stuck into the heart of the defence earlier in the season out of thread-bare necessity. There’s no questioning his potential quality, and at moments he’s shown why he’s highly rated. He’s no-where near ready for levels required next season, though. Rhys badly needs a loan move; we can assess his progress in 12-months’ time.
What would you do with Liverpool’s CB’s? Would you sign Konate and Kabak? What would happen to Phillips, Williams & Matip? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Joel Griffiths – @jo3lgriffiths
More Konate chat HERE