Ozan Kabak’s next step, Liverpool or Leicester? – scout report
Ozan Kabak, at just 19 years old, made the move to his third professional club. For some players, this would be a sign of an individual who struggles to settle at any set club. In Kabak’s case, however, it is a declaration of his ambition and the belief that clubs have in his abilities, despite the small pool of minutes to analyse. Now, after completing his first season with Schalke in the Bundesliga, he is being linked to the Premier League champions, Liverpool, and East Midlands side Leicester City, just a year after signing to Gelsenkirchen for €13.5 million.
Kabak was a member of the Galatasary youth system and made his first-team debut with the Istanbul club in May 2018. Typically, centre-back is a tremendously difficult position to play as a youngster at the top level, but Kabak took to senior football in his stride, quickly impressing scouts and fans alike with his composure and excellent positional sense. We will dissect this further through an analysis of his performances this term.
Kabak’s main strength is his ability to read situations and predict opposition patterns of attack. Despite not being overly tall, standing at 6’1”, he owns a remarkable leap that enables him to dominate in the air and he is comfortable defending in isolated situations, either centrally or down the wide channels. This scout report will display how he has adjusted to Wagner’s man-oriented high pressing tactics this season.
In this tactical analysis, we will also cover how important his defensive acumen is to a Schalke side who ranks third in the league for successful pressures, while also covering which potential suitor he would fit better.
Style of Play
When analysing Kabak’s style of play, we will focus on three key sides of his game. These combine to offer an insight into the kind of player that Kabak is and what he could grow to become in the future, potentially at either Liverpool or Leicester City. At only 20 years old, in this stage of his career, it is worth pointing out which features of his game are strong, and which are weaker, to discover how he will aid his side in winning matches.
Now, what are Kabak’s key strengths and what is his playing style? Like many rounded defenders, Kabak started as a striker before dropping back to use his talents in defence. At 6 foot 1, Kabak has that quickness and ability to read the game that can make smaller defenders stand out, and often be more useful than a taller, more limited figure, but as stated earlier, he still dominates aerially. These attributes will also be of use when playing in a high defensive line.
Kabak is right-sided (see below his heatmap) and right-footed but can tackle with either foot, which can prevent the type of awkward positioning when going into challenges that can lead to fouls, which is seen in the fact he has only received four yellow cards across the last two seasons. His defending can be dogged, but there is also a range of passing that can belie this, as well as a willingness to take players on and carry the ball out of defence. He is very efficient in his defensive duels and is very composed when stepping forward to challenge opponents in direct duels.
Above is a heatmap of Kabak this season, as a right-sided centre-back.
Dominance in aerial duels
Under former Huddersfield Town coach David Wagner, Schalke operate a high line of defence and a man-oriented press. This can lead to his centre-backs becoming susceptible to being exposed and isolated against quick attackers when the opposition win the ball back and transition into the attacking phase. As a result, being a central defender in this system requires a certain physical and technical profile, one which the Turk boasts.
In the above analysis, we see Kabak in a defensive aerial duel. Here, we see Kabak display his aforementioned impressive leap, which allows him to dominate opposition attackers aerially and regain possession.
In this instance, we see Kabak in an offensive aerial duel. Again, we see Kabak display his aerial dominance, jumping much higher than any opposing defender and finishing off the Bastian Oczipka set-piece delivery.
As stated earlier, Kabak is not the tallest centre-back around, but the timing of his jumps, in combination with his extraordinary leap, creates a defensive unit who is tough to get by aerially. If Kabak takes the onus in the duel, it is unlikely that he will lose out in the aerial battle. He is a genuine attacking threat because of this, his athleticism, and his innate capability to hang in the air, giving him the advantage over opponents trying to protect set-pieces.
In the 2019/20 season, he won 4.1 aerial duels per 90, at a success rate of 74.3%, which ranks in the 93rd and 91st percentile of centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues (with 10+ starts), respectively. These figures are genuinely exceptional, especially for a 20-year-old in his second full campaign in senior football. Comparatively, Jonny Evans at Leicester won 3.75 aerial duels per 90 at a lower 70.5% success rate, thus Kabak would be a marked improvement in this regard.
Positional acumen & solidity in ground duels
In terms of Kabak’s defensive positioning and effectiveness in defensive duels, he is strong in both regards. Technically, Kabak is very rarely caught out of position, even in moments of quick transition, which is essential in the modern game, which focuses so heavily on the play in these moments. He is composed when retreating towards his own goal, and also when stepping forward to challenge opponents in direct duels. He is also a physically robust and quick player over short and long distances, meaning he is happy defending in isolated situations, either centrally or in wide areas.
In the above analysis, we see Leverkusen try to exploit Schalke in the transitional phase of play. Kabak reads the scenario and predicts where the opposing player is going to pass to and intercepts the ball as a result.
On a separate occasion, we see Kabak in a one on one defensive duel. Firstly, Kabak forces Kai Havertz out wide with his defensive positioning, then he positions his body as to block Havertz from getting towards the goal and recovering the ball in the process.
In these examples, we have seen Kabak display his positional intelligence and solidity in a defensive duel. Being able to predict oppositions patterns of attack like this is a skill that is not easy to teach, and one that has been irrefutably crucial in the Turkish defender’s rapid ascension and integration within senior football. This ability to read the game quicker than others has translated into the young defender directing his more experienced peers, ensuring that the defensive unit stays compact and tough to play through. This is promising to see in such a young defender, encouraging for his future prospects as a potential captain of a side, as he presents a penchant to be noticeably outspoken and instructive on the pitch.
In the season just gone, he had a tackle/dribbled past percentage of 56.3%, which impressively ranked ninth in the entirety of the Bundesliga. Percentage of dribblers tackled is measured through dividing the number of dribblers tackled by dribblers tackled plus times dribbled past. This is emblematic of his composure when stepping forward up against a tricky forward, as seen in the prior example. This compares favourably to the player he desires to become more alike, Virgil van Dijk, whose tackle/dribbled past percentage was just 40%, though this was a colossal drop-off from the 2018/19 season where he boasted a 92.9% success rate.
Passing ambition & hindrance
Wagner likes his Schalke side to play a vertical style with an emphasis on attacking through the thirds and using the half-spaces to progress the ball. Kabak is fairly essential in the progression of possession and often collects the ball in space before looking to move it quickly to the feet of an attacking teammate. This approach to his passing game is one of high-risk and high-reward, meaning he can give up the ball in dangerous zones on occasion. Moreover, he can instigate meaningful attacks with these passes as well through direct balls to a forward.
Here, we see Kabak receive the ball from a teammate, and he immediately looks to play a vertical pass. He hits a long-range pass which would find right-back Jonjoe Kenny in an advanced position.
In another instance, we see Kabak down the wide channel. He is looking to send a ball centrally towards an attacker but is being pressured by a defender behind him and is blocked off by a defender in front of him.
In this season, we saw Kabak’s passing improve from his time at Stuttgart, especially under pressure, which makes sense for a young defender to improve in this aspect with more game time. 35% of all his completed passes are long-range ones, as it is often the case that his partner centre-back would offload the ball to him sideways, for Kabak to send the ball directly to an attacker, which is clearly an instruction from Wagner’s tactics. This season has seen him develop patience on the ball and he is starting to understand to step forward in possession to welcome pressure before distributing the pass. This small modification has no doubt generated more advantageous opportunities for his team this term.
As a result of this passing approach, his passing completion rate stands at 83.6% and a 75.1% long pass completion rate. Both of which rank very poorly within Europe’s top five leagues, but this is a consequence of the way which Wagner likes one of his centre-backs to play, very aggressive and progressive in their passing ventures. Nonetheless, if he is to join a side who prefer to keep possession through short-passes, this is a side of his game he will have to work upon.
Liverpool or Leicester?
So, which team would Kabak suit better? Well, at Leicester City he would be playing for an equally energetic and man-oriented pressing side as Schalke, however, Brendan Rodger’s does allow his players to cut off the passing lanes when appropriate. Evans, at Leicester, has played as a mentor to an impetuous Çağlar Söyüncü this season but would need replacing at some point, given he is 32 years old. Like Evans, Kabak is less aggressive with his positioning than Söyüncü and plays primarily as a right-sided centre-back, so would be a suitable replacement in that regard. Though, Kabak currently plays as the progressive passer of the two centre-halves at Schalke, and this would likely not be the case at Leicester, as Söyüncü has shown an eagerness to get on the ball and play vertical passes regularly.
At Liverpool, however, there is a place at right centre-back which he could come in and compete for starting minutes straight away. Under world-class coach Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool have developed a far more direct approach in the most recent Premier League season, with a keen likeness to that of Wagner’s approach at Schalke, which makes sense given the coaches friendship. Each centre-back will play a direct ball to their respective wingers, Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah, just like we saw Kabak play a direct ball to advanced full-back Kenny to progress play. Finally, Klopp has expressed a need of having four players who play primarily as a centre-back, and with the sale of Dejan Lovren, they now have three. All of this together is why it might make more sense for Kabak to join his current idol van Dijk at Liverpool.
Above are pie charts of van Dijk’s and Kabak’s statistics in the Premier League and Bundesliga respectively in the 2019/20 season from FootballSlices.com (Twitter is @FootballSlices). Data sources: FBref.com and StatsBomb.
Through this, we can see that although Liverpool are a high-pressing side, their centre-backs, or at least van Dijk, do not attempt to press their opponents regularly, which is a noticeable difference between van Dijk and Kabak. Also, the Dutch international is generally less active defensively, which makes sense for a dominant Liverpool side. In a Liverpool side, one can imagine that Kabak’s defensive actions would drop and his passing stats to rise dramatically. Liverpool tend to mix their possession play with a fair few long balls, and Kabak has good aim when hitting upfield, which would allow him to make an immediate impression at the Kop.
At just 20 years old, Kabak is one of the highest-rated young defenders in Europe and would represent a worthy gamble, where he would hope to become a regular partner alongside van Dijk. Upon arrival, he would need to be coached into being less active on the defensive side, improve his levels of concentration, and be more measured on the ball, but he has the physical and technical profile to do so. Nonetheless, Kabak has stepped up to the plate at every opportunity he has been given thus far, and he profiles well as a defender who would flourish in leagues that favour high-tempo playing styles. Kabak, on paper, would prosper in the combative environment of the Premier League, and it is tricky to identify a critical flaw that could hinder him from becoming one of Europe’s best defenders.