Liverpool went to Bournemouth expecting a difficult game to navigate.
The Cherries were top of the form table, and with Dom Solanke (a former Liverpool striker) in the form of his life, there was the combination of both a good team and storyline against Jürgen Klopp’s side.
For 45 minutes, it was exactly that.
Bournemouth are an excellent counter pressing side. Andoni Iraola has shaped the Cherries into a well-drilled, high-energy machine, able to counterattack with ferocious pace and disruptive out of possession. With both teams cancelling each other out in the first half, it was the first Premier League game in four years that didn’t see a shot inside the box.
Liverpool, as they have done so often this season, dominated the second half and ran out 4-0 winners. So often when teams win by that sort of margin the attack is focused on. Liverpool’s win at the Vitality Stadium did have slick attacking combinations on display, but that was only possible thanks to the performances of their defensive line.
Liverpool’s French centre-back has had his injuries this season, and Klopp has spoken about being careful with his muscles/recovery time. Since not featuring at Burnley away on Boxing Day, the Paris-born defender has played every single minute possible (against Newcastle and Bournemouth in the league, Arsenal in the FA Cup and Fulham in the Carabao Cup). He’s featured in 51.6% of Premier League minutes this season, and he’s very clearly being carefully managed. Yet injuries to Joël Matip, Andy Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas (which has shifted out natural centre-back Gomez out wide) has meant Konaté is playing more than ever.
He's also playing some of the best football of his career so far.
In the last five games, he has won the Player of the Match award at the Emirates and locked up in-form Dom Solanke, he has had crucial last-ditch tackles and been increasingly confident with the ball at his feet.
If Liverpool are to win trophies this season – currently in the hunt for four at the time of writing – Konaté’s fitness and ability will play a huge part in it.
Virgil van Dijk’s defensive style has become renowned. The Netherlands international is as laid back as you’ll ever see a central defender, he barely breaks a sweat as he wins duel after duel after duel – whether that be aerial or on the ground. He rarely is the aggressor, backing off and defending on his terms, or forcing them into a mistake.
Konaté is very much the opposite to that. The former Sochaux defender takes the aggressive approach, able to leave the defensive line to win the ball back high. It’s a common theme that you’ll see amongst centre back pairings at the elite level (Arsenal have theirs in William Saliba and Gabriel, for example) and Konaté and van Dijk’s two skillsets complement each other to a tee.
Konaté, signed by Michael Edwards for £36m back in 2021, is an elite level one on one defender, excelling in duels.
FBRef’s Scouting Report tool (which compares Konaté to centre-backs in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues and Champions League based on 2,506 minutes played) ranks him in the 90th percentile for tackles attempted at 2.19 per 90 (evidence of his aggressive approach).
What’s even more impressive is that he wins 1.59 of those – ranking him in the 96th percentile. If Konaté goes in for a tackle, the likelihood is that he’s winning it. This was on show in all its glory against Bournemouth…
He’s also key to Liverpool when defending against the long ball and transitional game, which they tend to face as one of the more ball dominant teams in the league.
His aerial win percentage is 76% – ranking him in the 97th percentile.
He tends to be the one out of the two centre backs who attacks the ball when it’s kicked long, sticking to the oppositions target. In the case of Sunday’s game, in the tornado-like conditions that the Vitality creates, he won eight out of his ten aerial duels, limiting Solanke to just one aerial duel won out of seven attempts. If Bournemouth tried to go long, Konaté swallowed it up.
He's also just as effective in transition, and a big part of why Trent Alexander-Arnold inverting into his new midfield pivot role has worked is because Konaté is a top-level defender of space.
While his minutes do need to be managed, when the Frenchman is on the pitch, he is physically incredible. He’s very quick, and he needs to be. Asked to defend the wide-right areas that Alexander-Arnold vacates isn’t easy, you’re asked to cover a lot of space. Konaté is able to do this well. He has experience defending from wide during his time at RB Leipzig, his long strides cover up space quickly and he tends to know when to jump and when to not.
With a more limited defender instead of Konaté, Liverpool’s setup would have to be completely different – both with and without the ball.
On the ball
Being an exceptional defender is great. Yet, to be a difference maker at the elite level defenders now need to be not only confident with the ball at their feet, but specialise in passing the ball, carrying it up the pitch, or both. We all know we’re in a new era of centre back – these guys are now so key to how a team builds up, how they sustainably create attacks and move the ball up the pitch.
With Matip and van Dijk, you had a complimentary balance. van Dijk is elite in both categories, his sweeping diagonal switches to Mo Salah can beat a press in an instant and could shrug any attempts to win the ball back off him as he swaggered into the midfield. Matip’s ball carrying became infamous, reminiscent of a giraffe slaloming its way through tight spaces.
Konaté is more in the mould of his current partner. He is allowed the freedom that Matip was, to win the ball back and, almost as equally unnatural looking but effective, go past numerous opponents with ease. He ranks in the 80th percentile for progressive carries (0.83 per 90). What’s even more impressive is his 0.68 take-one per 90 (ranking him in the 80th percentile) and 0.47 successful take-ons per 90 (ranking him in the 84th percentile).
He’s brave and confident, it allows Liverpool to open space quickly, as men get dragged towards trying to win it off Konaté and he can then release to a player in space and create the numerical superiority in dangerous spaces.
It's perhaps Konaté’s passing game that has seen the most improvement in recent weeks, and Bournemouth was perhaps his best game in red in that aspect. Nobody attempted more passes (83) or progressed the ball as many yards as Liverpool’s No. 5 did (751 – Alisson was second with 534). Konaté touched the ball more than anyone else, he had clear responsibility in the build-up – and he thrived under the spotlight. He consistently got the ball into the feet of the dangerous players, and, alongside Alexis Mac Allister (another standout) got the ball into the final third with their passing eight times each.
There was then his incredible sweeping pass that created the first goal.
Keeping him fit
The concern with Konaté is of course that you always feel like an injury is round the corner, and right now Liverpool don’t have the depth to rest him as much as they’d like.
This may be alleviated by Andy Robertson coming back, allowing Gomez to revert to his natural central position, but it’s still a concern. Other than that, it’s hard to fault any of Konaté’s game (perhaps his in his own box defending has been erratic at times, but we have already seen improvement there).
He is perfect for what this team wants to do. He is the perfect partner to a back to his best van Dijk.
He will – almost scarily – only get better from here.
If Liverpool are to win things this season, keeping Konaté healthy will be key.