It came as little surprise that, after the nature of their 2020/21, Liverpool’s first summer signing was a central defender. Injuries suffered by the influential Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joël Matip had left them so short of cover that they were often forced to select Jordan Henderson and Fabinho out of position, and eventually to recruit Ozan Kabak on loan.
That they then paid €41.5m to trigger Ibrahima Konaté’s release clause from RB Leipzig, having been so reluctant to invest in the January transfer window and with Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip again nearing fitness, demonstrates the extent to which they admire the young Frenchman, 22 when his transfer was confirmed in May 2021. “We are signing a player who will add to the quality we already have here,” said Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp. “His physical attributes are very impressive; he is quick, he is very strong and he is dominant in the air.”
The right-footed Konaté is proven as a central defender in both a back three and four. When he advances to press or to follow an opponent (below) he is extremely aggressive in doing so, and if his opponent is effective at retaining and protecting the ball with his feet, Konaté is regularly capable of matching their power and strength. He follows them, remains particularly close to them, and prevents them from rolling, turning, or progressing possession.
There are inevitably occasions when that aggression means he concedes free-kicks – particularly against nimbler, intelligent opponents skilled at drawing fouls – and the further he strays from his central defensive partner, the likelier he is to do so. He, similarly, can be guilty of holding on to opponents with both arms to stop them from securing the ball, but in doing so again commits a foul.
Konaté, regardless, has a versatile approach to defending. His leap and control when competing for possession makes him capable of attacking aerial balls, and his speed and aggression contributes to him regaining loose balls after advancing into midfield.
When he is the central defender providing secondary cover, he is just as capable of reading play (below), and quickly, accordingly adjusting his position. Should he be the last defender there is minimal margin for error in his positioning and judgement of when to engage his opponent, and he is proven at each. His efforts are consistently complemented by the acceleration that rivals the fastest opponents, and to the extent he can hold off those attempting to power their way forwards. That same timing also applies to his attempts to make interceptions and cut out passes before they reach their intended target, and to his defending from inside the penalty area, when he is both measured and willing to use his body to block shots and attack crosses.
With the ball at his feet, Konaté is an accurate passer with the vision to progress possession. As, most commonly, the right-sided central defender, he bends passes into strikers or wide forwards (below) making runs through the right inside channel, achieving both whip and top spin to give the target of his pass an increased chance of controlling, whether it is delivered to in front of or in behind their opposing defenders.
It is when he is selected in the centre of a back three that he is likelier to play direct forward passes by striking through the ball to target wing-backs via cross-field passes. The increased distance requires him to strike the ball with increased power; that wing-backs are under reduced pressure from opponents also increases his freedom to do so.
Role at RB Leipzig
Throughout 2020/21 under Julian Nagelsmann, who regularly changed his team’s shape, Konaté was given varying defensive roles. He won 71 per cent of his aerial duels, but only 47 per cent of his defensive duels – owing to the inconsistency involved in him advancing as an individual defender – in the Bundesliga.
When Nagelsmann favoured a back four (below), Konaté most commonly featured as their right-sided central defender alongside Dayot Upamecano, who like Nagelsmann has joined Bayern Munich, or Willi Orbán. If alongside Orbán, Konaté was chiefly responsible for providing secondary cover behind his aerially dominant teammate, and benefitted from Orbán’s ability to jockey and delay opponents until he and Leipzig’s other defenders had recovered their defensive positions. Orbán was more limited when required to defend bigger spaces and sprint over longer distances, which placed an increased emphasis on Konaté to organise their defence, and to defend in behind; it was when he was forced to defend from further forwards, and therefore Orbán was required to provide the secondary cover, that Leipzig were less effective at defending.
Alongside Upamecano, whose qualities mirror many of those of Konaté, Konaté defended with increased variety. If Upamecano advanced to press, Konaté’s awareness and timing contributed to him covering in behind, and their effectiveness was such that opponents increasingly prioritised attacking from wider territory. When that was the case they continued to complement each other; one pressed forwards, and the other offered cover in the central areas of the pitch; when possession progressed along the touchline, the defender providing cover moved wide to engage, delay the relevant attack, and attempt to block access back infield, and the defender who had advanced to press recovered back behind him to then take the central areas that had just been vacated.
Both, largely owing to their speed and physicality, were also capable of rivalling an opponent’s attempts to continue to carry the ball along the touchline and cut infield from further forwards, and proved equally comfortable in each role. That they developed a strong understanding contributed to that being the case.
When their shape instead featured three central defenders (above), Konaté was selected in the centre of the three, and most consistently had Upamecano and Orbán either side of him. There were, regardless, occasions when a full-back instead featured as the third central defender, perhaps similarly to Kyle Walker at Manchester City, and when Lukas Klostermann, Marcel Halstenberg or Nordi Mukiele featured as their right-sided central defender. When that was the case, Konaté was less likely to rotate and attempt to cover the wider areas of the pitch. From the centre of the three, he was also less willing to aggressively stray from Leipzig’s defensive line, and instead preferred to wait until his fellow central defenders were ready to move further infield or until their wing-backs had sufficiently retreated.
From that same position, Konaté also demonstrates an increased passing range through being able to target teammates towards both the left and right. The forward runs Angeliño made from left wing-back, and the different nature of player featuring towards the right, regularly demanded that variety; when instead the right-sided central defender in a back four, he most commonly played passes for Yussuf Poulsen or Alexander Sorloth to control, or for Emil Forsberg, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku to run on to.