Ibrahima Konate has emerged as a key figure in helping Liverpool extract more of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s creativity.
The life of a defender is, by its very definition, fraught with danger. One false step, and everything gone before can be swiftly forgotten.
Compare and contrast the fortunes of forward Diogo Jota and centre-back Ibrahima Konate during Liverpool’s emphatic 6-1 Premier League triumph at Leeds United on Monday night.
For more than half-an-hour, Jota appeared barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other, so poor was his display. Come full-time, however, he had scored twice, set up one goal and was involved in the build-up to another as he emphatically rediscovered his form after more than a year without a strike.
Konate, meanwhile, was impressive as Liverpool kept Leeds at arm’s length in the first half and was similarly strong for much of the remainder of the match as Jurgen Klopp’s team ultimately took the game away from the hosts.
Yet it was the Frenchman’s mistake, dispossessed by Luis Sinisterra to gift Leeds a brief lifeline shortly after half-time, for which he will perhaps be most remembered by those watching. The highlights reel emphasises the blunder.
But Konate’s performance deserves better than to be defined by that rare individual error. Scratch beneath the surface, and it’s swiftly evident he forms an important part of Liverpool’s new-look tactical approach.
That Trent Alexander-Arnold has made such a creative impact when being given the freedom to move into more central midfield positions shouldn’t come as a surprise given he has long been regarded the playmaker for Liverpool at right-back under Klopp. Releasing him further upfield has served to increase his potency and range of passing.
However, that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the versatility of the players around him. The midfield – Curtis Jones and Jordan Henderson in particular – have had to tweak their regular roles so not to clutter the central areas and instead provide Alexander-Arnold the space in which to play.
The biggest ask, though, is of the defence in covering for Alexander-Arnold when he steps out of the backline. And that is where Konate is a key, unheralded element to the subtle shift in tactics from Klopp that demands more from whoever is the right-sided centre-back.
Certainly, Joel Matip and Nat Phillips would lack the pace Konate possesses in sprinting across to close gaps, while Joe Gomez doesn’t have quite the same aggression and decisiveness in his play. The France international, then, is tailor-made for the role.
One example of this came in the second half when, with Leeds attacking, Konate first jockeyed a breaking Sinisterra and then shifted right to tackle and dispossess Junior Firpo. With Alexander-Arnold having pushed forward, Konate was essentially playing in two positions, with Henderson on hand to help out.
Konate’s all-round game suits the task. Only Curtis Jones made more tackles against Leeds, Andy Robertson more clearances and nobody managed more interceptions. Against Arsenal the previous weekend, Konate was the top Liverpool player for tackles, interceptions and aerial duels won.
“I had zero concerns when the manager asks you to go and do a slightly different role,” said Konate, speaking ahead of the visit to Elland Road. “We all know Trent is a great player and obviously the closer he gets to the opposition he creates a threat. But I’m only human, I can’t cover for him down that side all the time!”
It will be interesting to discover if the profile of any possible centre-back recruited this summer – there are question marks over the future of both Matip and Phillips – will demand similar attributes to that of Konate.
And having missed more than half the season through injury, perhaps the one remaining point Konate has left to prove at Liverpool is his ability to stay fit for lengthy periods. After all, Alexander-Arnold’s new role depends greatly on the versatility of his French defensive colleague.