The RB Leipzig defender is reportedly drawing admiring glances from Anfield, and could reinvigorate the champions following a lacklustre title defence
Sunday’s meeting with Manchester United at Old Trafford is one that could have serious implications for Liverpool’s season.
The Reds are, at the moment, only a point off a place in the top four, but the very real prospect of losing – on a ground where they have not won since 2014, no less – could see them fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since Jurgen Klopp’s first season in charge at the club.
While it is impossible to exhaustively prescribe the root of their struggles this term, a combination of injuries, the accumulated fatigue of chasing and overhauling a historic Manchester City side under Pep Guardiola, and the effect of the Covid pandemic on the global footballing calendar have all contributed to a poor campaign by Liverpool’s standards.
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That those injuries all seemed to hit the same department of the team can be considered unfortunate, but for large portions of the season the Reds’ approach to the whittling down of their options at centre-back was oddly passive.
The loss of Virgil van Dijk, hailed as the single most transformative acquisition of all in the Klopp era, was bound to affect the team’s rhythm and security, but it need not have been terminal. However, further long-term knocks to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip demanded addressing right away, but only at the end of the January window did the club act, bringing in the duo of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies from Schalke and Preston North End respectively.
By that point, the damage was pretty much done.
It appears now that a lesson has been learnt, albeit belatedly.
Recent reports are linking RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate to the Merseyside club, with some sources claiming it is only a matter of time before the Reds pay the release clause for the 21-year-old centre-back of Malian descent.
That would significantly swell the number of centre-backs at Kirkby, but with Matip prone to injury, Gomez’s form inconsistent even pre-injury, Kabak struggling to properly adapt to the demands of Klopp’s system, and both Nathaniel Philips and Rhys Williams as yet unready for the very top level, there can be no pretence: there is certainly room for a player of Konate’s ability.
Standing at 6ft 4in and possessing tremendous speed across the ground, he is a dominant defensive presence who, for many, is even better than his much-vaunted teammate Dayot Upamecano, who will join Bayern Munich in the summer.
“In terms of his playing style he is very good at tackles due to his physique,” says Goal Germany editor Stanislav Schupp. “Pace, positioning, intercepting passes and building from the back are also among his strengths – that’s why he’s sometimes compared to Virgil van Dijk.”
Watch Konate, and it is easy to see where the parallel comes from.
He brings the same air of quiet calm when defending that means he is rarely out of control, uses his frame well to get in front of attackers and times his interventions almost impeccably.
He is also, like Van Dijk, adept at bringing the ball out; unlike the Dutchman though, he can do so through dribbling past pressure and bursting into midfield, a skillset that would give Liverpool an added dimension both in build-up and attacking transition.
Indeed it is that propensity for the unusual that has marked him out for greatness for quite a while, and that makes him such a fascinating defender. If he has not begun to properly realize that potential, it is as a result of an unfortunate injury record that has denied him a run in the team to further his development.
“This season he’s struggled a lot with injuries, which is why he has only played 13 matches in the Bundesliga so far, starting seven times,” Schupp says. “Still, he is one of the biggest talents in Leipzig’s squad.
“When signing him back in 2017 former Leipzig manager Ralf Rangnick said about him: ‘He’s so good that he could play for Real Madrid or Barcelona one day.’ Last month [Julian] Nagelsmann also spoke about Konate and said: ‘He’s a great talent, a very good player who has a lot of potential. He has the playing class and also the playfulness that I like.
“He always does crazy things in training, something not very typical for a central defender.’”
Alongside Van Dijk, Konate would form an even stronger defensive partnership than Liverpool had before.
He also handily provides the option of using a different shape at the back (he is well-versed in playing in a back three, being that has been Nagelsmann’s preferred system at Leipzig) should Klopp be minded to evolve the team’s tactical identity in search of fresh impetus next season.
Until the Dutch Colossus returns, however, Konate may be the key to ensuring the Reds do not begin 2021/22 already playing catch-up to the league’s heavy hitters.