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star potential Tracking the rise of Ibrahima Konate and why he has long been viewed as a star in the making

The tall, pacey centre-back has all the building blocks needed to be the lead man in the Red’s high-line defence

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Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool during the Pre-Season Friendly fixture between Liverpool and Osasuna at Anfield Photo: Getty

Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool during the Pre-Season Friendly fixture between Liverpool and Osasuna at Anfield Photo: Getty

Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool during the Pre-Season Friendly fixture between Liverpool and Osasuna at Anfield Photo: Getty

RB Leipzig are no strangers to unearthing wonderkids, but when the club’s scouts found Ibrahima Konate his talent made them sit up and take notice.

The Bundesliga side’s network of feeder clubs often allow Leipzig to park stars of tomorrow before they are ready for the German top flight. Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano learnt to walk at RB Salzburg before they could run at Leipzig. Even Erling Haaland had a brief spell in Austria, before Borussia Dortmund tempted the striker away from the Red Bull network.

Unlike those stars, however, Konate was deemed good enough for the Bundesliga at the age of 18.

“We have been watching Ibrahima Konate for some time,” said sports director Ralf Rangnick when the defender joined from Sochaux on a free transfer in 2017. “He’s so good that he could play for Real Madrid or Barcelona one day.”

Rangnick’s prediction may still come true, but if the 22-year-old Frenchman is to end up in Spain he will now have to do so following a successful spell at Anfield, after he joined Liverpool this summer for £36 million.

A quick glance at Konate on a football pitch will quickly explain why the Merseyside club were so willing to part with their money before the transfer window had even opened.

At 6ft 4in, Konate had the height to dominate in the air in a division renowned for powerful strikers such as Haaland and Robert Lewandowski. When you add remarkable pace to that equation you get all the building blocks of a promising, modern defender.

“He’s very quick, good in the duels and he’s strong in the air,” RB Leipzig and former Liverpool goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi said. “He has also improved over the years with the ball at his feet. He’s now very composed. He knows his strength and he’s a clever player.”

As a child, Konate was far more interested in being a striker in four-v-four games and eventually moved into midfield in Paris FC’s youth academy. The future Bundesliga star only made the move into defence after his move to Sochaux and promotion to senior football in France’s Ligue 1.

Despite moving further down the pitch, Konate lost none of his effectiveness, and after just half a season in the French top flight, RB Leipzig swooped for the defender and threw him straight into Ralph Hasenhuttl’s squad for the 2017-18 season.

“Some new additions will have to be Googled,” joked Rangnick ahead of Konate’s arrival from relative obscurity to the Bundesliga.

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Like Konate, the German club were young, relatively untested but unquestionably ambitious and in many ways proved to be the perfect place for the defender to develop his talents. Making his debut in a league clash with Cologne at 18-years-old, Konate’s talents quickly came to the fore through Hasenhuttl’s tenacious tactics.

“He was really young and he was already really, really good. You could see he was going to become a top centre-back,” says Gulacsi. “He’s very disciplined, too, so there was never a problem with him in the changing room.”

The defender’s remarkable pace, ball control and confidence in dribbling through the middle of the pitch to trouble deep-lying opponents fitted in perfectly with RB Leipzig’s high defensive line and relentless pressing of the ball and after just one year at the club Konate had established himself alongside Upamecano and Willi Orban as a necessity in defence.

Having masterminded his move to the club, it seemed only fitting that Rangnick then got the best out of Konate, when the German stepped into the role of head coach following Hasenhuttl’s departure for Southampton.

Konate, having previously described Rangnick as “somehow like a kind of dad to me” due to their close relationship, featured in all but six of RB Leipzig’s games in 2018-19 and played a pivotal role in his side finishing third in the table, with the best defensive record in the league.

Such were Konate’s performances that he was rewarded with a contract extension midway through the campaign, following inevitable interest from bigger clubs such as Liverpool.

“Konate has developed brilliantly here so far and his qualities have led to him becoming an integral member of our defence,” said Rangnick when the new contract was announced.

That season should have been a springboard for the French talent to announce himself as Europe’s next defensive star. But misfortune was just around the corner.

In just the seventh game of the season, Konate collided with Lyon forward Memphis Depay in a Champions League group game and was forced off after just 27 minutes. Scans later found that the player had torn a hip flexor muscle, which ruled him out for the majority of the season. Recovery from surgery and a subsequent ankle injury saw Konate miss a further 15 games of the 2020-21 season.

As a result, the German side were not terribly upset when Liverpool triggered Konate’s release clause to pay £36 million for a player they had signed for free and had struggled for game time. As such, a move to Anfield may have come at the perfect time for the young defender.

Whether Liverpool have signed the exciting talent Rangnick once plucked from French obscurity or a defender who has since seen injury rob him of his promise remains to
be seen.

“If he fulfils his potential then he’s going to be an important player for Liverpool in the coming years,” says Gulacsi. “And he has all the talent and potential to do that.”

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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