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Ozan Kabak

Schalke 04 to Liverpool, loan

Ozan Kabak joined Ben Davies as one of two central defenders to sign for injury-hit Liverpool in the January transfer window. The Turkey international arrived on an initial six-month loan, for a fee of £1m that could yet reach £1.5m; there is an option for the deal to be made permanent, for a reported fee of £18m that could rise to £26.5m. At only 20 years of age, he remains a raw prospect rather than the finished article, but serious injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joël Matip mean that he is likely to feature before the conclusion of a difficult season for his new club.

Should he do enough to convince Liverpool to sign him permanently, it will be a significant sign of their confidence in his abilities. Van Dijk remains widely thought of as the world’s best central defender, and Joe Gomez as England’s. When everyone is fit, Liverpool’s back five is perhaps even more widely considered the finest in the world. “He’s really a big, big talent and we are really looking forward to working with him,” Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp said. “He is a proper personality.”

Tactical analysis
Kabak is particularly good at moving from his team’s defensive line to compete for possession. His pressing instincts mean he effectively judges whether to retain his position, or whether to commit to a duel, cover behind a teammate or even contribute in midfield. If pressing in wider territory – particularly after blocking and forcing play away from the centre of the pitch – he uses the touchline well.

His upper-body strength (below) complements his abilities when duelling and when defending wide, when he uses his arms and when his build helps him to move across his opponent – particularly if that opponent is attempting to play the ball forwards and chase it – or to block and shield the ball until clearing or until a suitable passing option emerges. As is perhaps to be expected of a right-footed player of his age, he is more confident when duelling and tackling with his right foot, even if that means stretching to make contact with the ball.

He is similarly authoritative in the air, where he aggressively attacks balls dropping just in front of defensive lines, defends against crosses, or challenges closer to the halfway line. With the ball at his feet he favours combining with teammates through the right inside channel, or switching play towards the left wing.

If attempting lengthier passes towards the right he targets the spaces between the opposing full-back and central defender; regardless of the target of his passes he is capable of using them to transform defence into attack. If instead playing shorter, he demonstrates a variety of pass and then continues to support possession, and at a high tempo.

His accuracy needs to continue to improve, but his speed of pass is consistent, and contributes to him breaking lines (below). He also needs to improve when he is defending from more central areas, when he can struggle against attackers capable of turning and accelerating at a speed he cannot match if his press isn’t sufficient.

From inside the penalty area his desire to be prepared to block shots also means he too regularly commits, and therefore that subtly moving the ball to one side can beat him. Opponents also seek to force him to defend on his less-favoured left foot.

Role at Schalke
By the point of his departure for Liverpool, Kabak had made more defensive and more aerial challenges than any other Schalke player during 2020/21, doing so as a key figure in a defence that was consistently under pressure, and one willing to contribute further forwards against attacks between the lines. He had also recorded more interceptions than any other teammate, because of that desire to advance to defend, and because Schalke sometimes defended with a higher line that made his effective pressing and movements from behind an opponent key in making those interceptions.

After appearing in a back three at the start of the season, he then featured in a back four alongside first Salif Sané, and then Matija Nastasic, formerly of Manchester City. Even though he covered behind the right-back alongside him (below) – he continued to impress in keeping play wide and delaying attacks – if Kabak moved forwards or towards the right to challenge for the ball, instead of his fellow central defender or the closest full-back moving across to cover, one of Schalke’s central midfielders withdrew into central defence.

If their right-back was under intense pressure, Kabak’s speed of pass instead contributed to Schalke progressing possession towards the right, often by him beating the first line of that pressure with a pass for that right-back to chase in the knowledge that Kabak would support from behind him and remain ready to combine in the inside channel. When one of Schalke’s central midfielders – perhaps Omar Mascarell or the versatile Benjamin Stambouli – withdrew to alongside him in defence, Kabak instead advanced and played more direct balls through or over the right inside channel, often targeting the runs made by their leading striker Matthew Hoppe.

Their second striker, Mark Uth, made runs behind Hoppe into the right inside channel or into midfield in an attempt to receive further passes from Kabak. It was when his speed of pass didn’t play lines that his relative inaccuracy could become influential in an inconsistent team.

Ozan Kabak

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