When Liverpool were crowned as the champions of England in 2019/20, they only conceded 33 goals from 38.92 xGA. However, they struggled to repeat this defensive success because of the recurring centre-back injuries last season, and recorded an xGA tally of 47.06 while conceding 42 goals. Without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip in the squad for a large part of the season, the team was vulnerable at the centre of the defence.
Therefore, Liverpool are moving to have more depth in this part of the pitch, and have recruited the 22-year-old Frenchman Ibrahima Konate for €40 million from RB Leipzig. This tactical analysis piece is a scout report which will show Konaté’s strengths and weaknesses, and how his style of play can work within Jürgen Klopp’s tactics.
Background and stats
Konaté started his career at Paris FC, from where he moved to Sochaux and made his professional debut in Ligue 2 for the club. He was then quickly snapped up by RB Leipzig, gradually developing into a mature player under Ralf Rangnick and then Julian Nagelsmann. After having made 95 appearances for the German club over four seasons, he is now making a step up to Liverpool and the Premier League.
The above table is a comparison of statistics among centre-backs at RB Leipzig in 2020/21. The France U21 international suffered from a couple of injuries last season which restricted him to only 1377 minutes of action in all competitions.
Konaté had fewer successful defensive actions per 90 than all others – 6.93, as well as a low PAdj interceptions figure – 5.87. Although the stats might suggest that Konaté was not a good defender, this can be attributed to the setup of the team. Nagelsmann wanted Konaté to cover his partner instead of leaving his position to engage with opponents frequently, so his defensive data is not very impressive.
We will now look at in-game examples to demonstrate his strengths and weaknesses.
Build-up and progression
Konaté had 1.83 progressive runs per 90 and 9.74 progressive passes per 90 last season, which were the 2nd and 4th highest for RB Leipzig. These stats show how he has a tendency to carry the ball forward frequently, and he has the explosive pace to burst forward and break defensive lines by running with the ball.
The first image shows RB Leipzig constructing an attack against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. With their opponents blocking off the half-spaces, especially the highlighted blue zone, there was no obvious vertical passing option for Konaté here. Ángel Di María is also pressing the 22-year-old which shuts down the passing lane to the right-back Nordi Mukiele. Losing the ball in this situation would lead to a dangerous PSG counter-attack.
Konaté turned a crisis into an opportunity here with his courage to bring the ball forward. He used the vacancy in the half-space as room to dribble and knocked the ball past Di María as we can see in the second image.
After Di María was bypassed, PSG’s midfield was forced to cover, and Leandro Paredes stepped up to press him. It also meant that Konaté successfully attracted two opponents to him through his ball carrying, opening up space for his teammates. Here, PSG’s left-back Mitchel Bakker was now overloaded by two RB Leipzig players on the right side as a result.
Konaté’s ability to absorb pressure will be pivotal for Liverpool to create more space for the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson on the flanks.
Despite being strong at moving the ball forward, Konaté’s decision-making in terms of his passing must improve if he is to be successful at Liverpool. This image shows the positioning of players after he dribbled past Paredes as well with RB Leipzig now in the final third. Konaté did not opt for an easy pass to release the wide players on the right. Instead, he also neglected the runners getting into the penalty box and attempted to switch the ball to the opposite flank. This was unnecessary, with several teammates providing easier runs and passing options, and this pass was intercepted, leading to a breakdown of a promising situation for Leipzig.
Konaté also needs to improve his attention to detail in the game. When he carries the ball forward, his subsequent decision-making is incorrect, which can lead to counter-attacking opportunities for opponents.
The biggest issue is his passing, or more specifically, how he sometimes opts for predictable short passes which are intercepted by opponents. Thus, Konaté has an issue with both being too adventurous as well as too predictable at times in terms of his passing decisions – this is a tendency which will have to be swiftly ironed out at Kirkby.
In this example against Manchester United, Scott McTominay already moved to the right before Konaté’s pass, anticipating his pass, but the centre-back still played the ball to the feet of the Scottish international, which led to Leipzig having to defend a counter-attack.
Another example of this weakness can be seen here. Konaté had the ball in the final third and noticed the passing option on the right. David Alaba also saw this and moved two steps to the side which opened up the vertical passing lane in the half-space for a runner who was getting behind the left-back. However, Konaté did not realize this, and played the pass that Alaba had anticipated and was thus able to cut out.
Defending, physicality, covering
Konaté is quite impressive in his defending as he is good at defending spaces – an ability only possessed by the top centre-backs in the world, and there are not too many who can do this at the age of 22, which shows his potential.
Bayern Munich have reached the final third in this example, with Douglas Costa releasing the overlapping Benjamin Pavard on the right flank. At this moment, Konaté is in the penalty box but his partner, Upamecano, is out of position.
There are two potential problems here. Kingsley Coman was at the penalty spot already while Robert Lewandowski was lurking at the edge of the box, but RB Leipzig only had Kevin Kampl in that area to cover.
In order to attack the cross, Coman dashed to the front post…
…but Pavard pulled the ball back towards Lewandowski, who only just entered the area. Now, one could have expected Konaté to get attracted towards Coman and therefore vacate the central space, leaving a lot of room for Lewandowski to shoot. However, the 22-year-old followed the ball rather than the man here, anticipating the cut-back and therefore being in the position to clear the ball before it reached the Polish striker.
Konaté reads the game well, which makes him a good player to cover spaces for teammates. At RB Leipzig, he has had the experience of playing in a back three as well as a back four, including as a wide centre-back or as the central centre-back, and we can see how this has shaped his defensive instincts as well.
Bayern had a player underlapping as well, which could have created a big problem if Konaté did not read this play. The Frenchman stepped out to press the receiver on time and was able to stop the attack, and this shows his ability to realise when dangerous situations are developing.
Another strength of the 22-year-old is his physical attributes. He is quick, with an explosive pace to cover large distances quickly, while also being quite strong and able to defend against more physical opponents as well when needed. This combination is a big reason why he is so good at defending large spaces.
This also makes him perfect for playing in a high defensive line. RB Leipzig have consistently played with a high line, which should make it easy for him to adapt to Liverpool’s style of play as well. This aggressive approach inevitably leaves large spaces for the rest defence to cover, and this is where Konaté excels.
On this occasion, PSG had a chance to initiate a counter-attack with Neymar having the ball centrally. Konaté was the last man with Upamecano higher up and slightly out of position. Kylian Mbappé read those spaces behind the defence and tried to exploit them with his quick pace. Fortunately, Konaté maintained a good body shape to check the run while keeping an eye on the ball…
…which meant that he was able to have both the player and the ball in his vision, while also being in position to accelerate. When Neymar played the long ball to find Mbappé, Konaté cleared the danger as he had managed to keep pace with the French striker as well as get into position to block exactly this kind of pass.
The biggest challenge for Konaté will be consistency – can he keep playing at a high level for a team with Liverpool’s ambitions every few days? He does have a tendency to make risky challenges when caught out which can cause problems for his side, as seen in this example, where he was the last man while defending against Hertha Berlin. The Frenchman pulls his opponent back which would have almost certainly resulted in a red card, had the referee been a little stricter, but it was not needed, as he had recovered sufficiently to put the striker off and could force him to go wide, while teammates were also getting back to cover.
Despite being just 22 years old, Konaté already has a lot of top-level experience in the Bundesliga as well as the Champions League for Leipzig. He has already shown a lot of quality, and there is still quite some room to improve, which just goes to show his potential. Konaté does have a tendency to suffer injuries, which will be something Liverpool need to monitor and potentially improve, but if he can stay fit, the former Sochaux and FC Paris youngster has all the attributes needed to be a huge success at the heart of Liverpool’s defence for years to come. As we have shown in this analysis, Konaté is a really talented defender.