It’s been an eventful first season for Ibrahima Konate, who established himself as one of Liverpool’s top young players.
The French centre-back, who only turned 23 in May, contributed greatly to the Reds’ FA Cup triumph and was also trusted for numerous big matches despite it being his first season at the club.
He arrived from RB Leipzig with high hopes, and he has confirmed his status as one of the best young defenders in Europe.
Ibrahima Konate, 2021/22
Started: 26 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 3
Unused sub: 32
Overall Season Rating: 8.87
Van Dijk comparisons
Konate is still young for a centre-back but he is already showing the type of quality Virgil van Dijk did at the same age.
During that period of his career, Van Dijk was developing his game at Celtic and then Southampton, and though already one of the best defenders around, many didn’t realise how good he was until he made the high-profile move to Liverpool.
It’s often said that Van Dijk needs to perform at the top level for longer to be considered one of the best centre-backs the game has seen, but the truth is he was already very good at Celtic and Southampton.
Konate, though, has the advantage of joining a massive club earlier in his career, and there’s no doubt he can reach a similar level.
Even if he doesn’t reach Van Dijk’s peak, few defenders ever will, and merely being close to that will still mean he’s developed into one of the best around.
But there is work to do yet. Konate has already commented on how much he has learned in his short time at Liverpool so far.
In a press conference while on France duty post-season, he commented on how Thiago had given him the confidence to be a threat at set-pieces.
“Before I didn’t believe in myself enough on corners,” Konate said. “Thiago Alcantara told me to have confidence because I was tall. It worked for me.”
Konate scored three headers for Liverpool this past season, having only scored once in this manner in his career previously.
It’s a simple bit of advice but it paid off, and he’s now considered a threat at set-pieces.
In the same press conference, he commented on how much he has learned from other players in the squad.
“[I’ve learned] not just from Van Dijk, but all of the players like Gomez and Matip,” he said.
“These are experienced players who have helped me. Van Dijk is the best centre-back in the world and he gives me a lot of advice.
“Every Liverpool player has helped me in every position, like Sadio Mane and Fabinho. It’s only the start and I hope to learn a lot of things and progress.”
The big man for the big games
Konate was far from a regular in the Liverpool side in the Premier League this season.
He only played in 11 league games which, in terms of appearances, is fewer than the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones and Kostas Tsimikas.
Unlike those other players, all of those appearances were starts, and he played the full 90 minutes in each giving him more league minutes in total than Roberto Firmino.
New Liverpool players often experience a bedding-in period – unless their name is Luis Diaz – but after several games sat on the bench throughout August and September, Konate was soon being considered a Liverpool starter.
And the games he did start in show how much he is already trusted by Klopp and the coaching staff.
His first league start was against Crystal Palace, but his second was the more considerable ask of starting in the derby game against Man United at Old Trafford. Liverpool won 5-0.
These games were the beginning of Konate’s unbeaten run in his first season as a Liverpool player, which lasted right until the final game of the season against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
That he was even trusted to play in that game is a sign of how highly he’s regarded at the club – a club that has three other centre-backs who would probably be regulars for most teams in Europe.
Getting into this side isn’t easy – just ask one of England’s best defenders, Joe Gomez – but Konate started numerous big games, including playing every minute of every FA Cup match, and even scored in the semi-final against Man City.
He started in both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals and semi-finals as well as that final appearance, and also made the lineup for three of the last four must-win league games as Liverpool looked to challenge for the title.
Suiting the style
His quick adaptation was down to the qualities he possesses, which Liverpool knew about before they signed him from the Bundesliga.
Konate himself spoke of his strengths in that recent press conference while on international duty with France.
“In terms of my qualities, I think I’m fast, and that I am intelligent in spite of my physical qualities,” he said. “I’m not afraid to have the ball at my feet.
“We also played a very high line at Leipzig. I’ve learnt a lot of things at Liverpool. Just by looking at Van Dijk’s game, I saw that he ran less than me during games and I couldn’t understand why.
“I need to improve my positioning.”
So there’s one area for improvement already, but watching him this season you wouldn’t particularly say his positioning is a weakness, though he obviously sees it as an area to work on.
Even if he doesn’t improve much, he’s already more than good enough to be a regular starter for Liverpool.
Best moment: Scoring the opening goal against Man City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley
Worst moment: Losing one game – the Champions League final
Role next season: Starting more league games and a key part of the next version of Klopp’s Liverpool