Liverpool’s success has been driven by their excellent recruitment. More than spending heavily, the Reds have tailored their signings to fit Jurgen Klopp’s highly specific style of play to ensure they can thrive within it.
It’s meant that expensive acquisitions such as Fabinho, Virgil Van Djik, and Allison can immediately make a positive impact on their team and their performance. In signing 20-year-old centre-back Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool have continued this transfer strategy.
While Klopp adjusts the intensity and area (high up the pitch or closer to their own half) of Liverpool’s press on a game-by-game basis, Liverpool generally keep a high defensive line. Consequently, their centre-backs need to be capable of covering the space in behind if the press is bypassed and dominant in one-on-one defensive duels.
In possession, the Reds try to use long passes from the back to try and find the advancing fullbacks and wingers in behind or to create opportunities for counter-pressing if possession is turned over. The centre-backs need to have both the intent and ability to execute these risky, direct passes.
Konate fits this system ideally. He’s used to a very similar tactical setup at RB Leipzig and has the requisite attributes to thrive within it. In possession, Konate stands out as both a passer and ball-carrier. He makes 3.42 progressive passes and 4.40 progressive carries per 90, well-above-average when compared to other centre-backs in Europe’s top-five leagues and genuinely elite for his age group.
Like Harry Maguire, Konate uses his physical strength to protect the ball as he carries it forward, and once he builds up a head of steam it’s virtually impossible to stop him. His passing technique is also impressive. He shapes them nicely, usually curling them towards the right flank to pass around an opponent trying to pressure him.
His weight of pass is also good in these scenarios, often finding an advancing fullback or wide attacker without them having to break stride. It’s easy to see how the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohammed Salah could benefit from this, allowing them to receive the ball in optimal positions on the right-hand side.
A weakness of Konate’s play in possession is that he tends to lose the ball frequently. This is to be expected since Leipzig’s tactical approach requires him to attempts a lot of ambitious and risky forward passes, but his completion is still low when compared to his teammates in the same position such as Dayot Upamecano and Willi Orban. He’ll need to develop a more reliable short and medium-range passing repertoire in order for him to become a truly reliable ball-playing defender.
Defensively, Konate’s attributes suit Leipzig and now Liverpool’s aggressively high line well. At 6’4″, he can usually dominate opponents aerially as well as in defensive duels, a useful asset when teams try to play over the top or in behind the high-press. Despite his physical build, Konate is also rapid, both over short and long distances. This not only allows him to cover the space behind the defensive line effectively but also enables him to step out of the defensive line to cut out opposition counter-attacks at their source.
This versatility of physical attributes is complemented by Konate’s impressive composure. In a system that requires him to defend large swaths of space and engage in lots of one-on-one battles, the Frenchman shows impressive coolness for a defender of his age.
He rarely rushed into tackles or broke Leipzig’s offside trap too quickly and seems totally assured in every duel he engages in. So while Konate is undoubtedly a physically imposing defender with a highly athletic style, it’s unfair to say he solely relies upon this. It’s his combination of technical proficiency with the ball, assurance in defensive situations, and physicality that makes him such an exciting prospect.
Liverpool should be an ideal fit for Konate from a tactical perspective. His ability to carry the ball and play penetrative passes into the right channel will make the Reds even more press resistant, particularly when combined with Virgil Van Djik’s ball-playing prowess and Thiago’s presence in midfield. Defensively, Konate is accustomed to defending in a high-line and has the physical traits to front up well against the various types of strikers he’ll encounter in English football.
His injury issues may impede his adjustment to Merseyside, and his erratic passing could leave Liverpool vulnerable to counters at certain times. Yet the upside to Konate’s game is well worth these shortcomings. In Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool have undoubtedly acquired a centre-back who can make the most of his immense potential under Jurgen Klopp’s tutelage.