After missing out on top four last season, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have returned with a vengeance. The Reds topped their Europa League group with 12 points from six matches, and they sit atop the Premier League table with 45 points from 20, three above Aston Villa, five above Manchester City (who have a game in hand) and Arsenal, and six above Tottenham. They boast the best defense in England with 18 goals conceded, and one player who has emerged as a crucial leader at the back is French center back Ibrahima Konaté.
Hailing from Paris, Konaté emerged as the second-youngest among eight siblings in a family of immigrants from Mali. Growing up in the era of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, he was captivated by their talents, sparking his early interest in football. At just ten years old, Konaté embarked on his football journey, initially as a striker with Paris FC’s youth ranks. However, destiny had bigger plans for Konaté, and at 14, he made the pivotal move to FC Sochaux. By 17, he had already made his debut for the club, but his ascent into the senior side faced an untimely setback with a significant muscle injury.
Undeterred, Konaté bounced back, although opportunities in the first team were scarce. It was during this time of uncertainty that clubs like RB Leipzig intensified their interest in signing him. Dissatisfied with the circumstances at Sochaux, Konaté made the decisive move to Leipzig in 2017, amassing 95 appearances for the club before making a significant transfer to Anfield in 2021.
Transitioning to the role of a Liverpool CB comes with distinct demands, and despite the challenges faced in the 2020/21 season due to injuries in the defensive lineup, Liverpool remained steadfast. Identifying Konaté as the ideal candidate for the role, they secured his signature early in the summer, providing a promising addition to bolster the team’s defence after a challenging season.
With Liverpool deploying one of the highest defensive lines in the league, a strategy that heightens the Reds’ vulnerability to counterattacks. Consequently, the need for players with exceptional recovery pace and strength becomes paramount to thwart counter-attacking situations.
Konaté, with recorded top speeds reaching 35km/h during his time at Leipzig, naturally possesses these crucial characteristics. Jurgen Klopp, acknowledging Konaté’s physical prowess, emphasized his speed, strength, and dominance in aerial duels upon the player’s arrival at Anfield. To evidence Konaté’s sheer defensive prowess at Leipzig, during the 2018/19 campaign he averaged a 73% aerial duel success rate per 90 (the 93rd percentile for CBs in Europe’s top five leagues that season).
Another tactical consideration in Konaté’s recruitment revolves around the advanced positioning of the fullbacks, particularly on the right side. Given Trent Alexander-Arnold’s much-maligned perceived positional awareness issues, the ability to step across and cover spaces left by Trent has become invaluable, with Konaté’s excellent stamina being displayed in the below heat map.
Since joining Liverpool, Konaté has notably excelled in this aspect, emerging as one of the league’s best central defenders in European football. His adeptness extends to covering traditional fullback positions, showcasing a significant evolution in his defensive capabilities.
The above graphic displays Konaté’s willingness and ability to cover spaces left by Alexander-Arnold, a crucial part of Liverpool’s right-sided CB responsibilities given TAA’s newfound inverted full-back role.
On numerous occasions, Konaté demonstrates his ability to utilize his rapid acceleration to regain lost ground on the flanks. He exhibits a remarkable proficiency in winning ground duels, employing both strength and impeccably timed tackles. Konaté has completed 0.92 tackles in the middle third of the pitch. Only Bournemouth’s Marcos Senesi has more amongst Premier League centre backs with 1.07, which highlights Liverpool’s high defensive line and Konaté’s ability to thwart attacking transitions from the opposition.
Konaté is consequently important to how Liverpool attack as he serves as a guard against turnovers when Liverpool lose the ball upfield.
An overlooked area of Konaté’s contribution to Liverpool has been his attacking output and this has been a side to his game that has gradually developed over the course of the season. In 2021/22, when Liverpool amassed 93 points and narrowly missed out on a quadruple, fellow centre back, Joel Matip was in the 98th percentile among Premier League centre backs for progressive carries, progressive carrying distance and carries into the penalty area, while he was in the 99th percentile for carries into the final third.
Undoubtedly, this has been a huge strength of Matip’s game under Klopp, but Konaté is starting to recreate this and it is evident in his underlying numbers. Konaté is averaging the more progressive passes (7.53 per 90) and is in the 94th percentile for progressive carries (1.61 per 90) among this year’s top flight centre backs.
Ultimately, Konaté’s increasing game-time at Liverpool coupled with his partnership with captain Virgil van Dijk, is aiding his development immensely. His attacking numbers are rising, he is dominating in defensive duels and he is covering spaces left by Trent, who, beside Mohamed Salah, has become arguably Liverpool’s primary creative force. There’s perhaps no better option in world football to be Klopp’s outside/lateral centre back. Even with Van Dijk now at 32 years old, Konaté is just 24, and his in-game maturity will only continue to grow.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ANP – Getty Images