Ibrahima Konate steps up to become Liverpool leader at the Emirates

Ibrahima Konate went to William Saliba’s backyard and returned to Merseyside with the Player of the Match award.

The Liverpool centre-back was a colossus in the 2-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday night, playing a key part in the clean sheet as Jurgen Klopp’s men knocked their hosts out of the FA Cup.

The Reds were forced into fielding a weakened XI in the third-round clash due to injuries and sickness. Klopp was also without Mohamed Salah and Wataru Endo due to their involvement in the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup, respectively. The German tactician named Joe Gomez at left-back and this meant he had no choice but to pair Ibrahima Konate with Jarell Quansah at centre-back with Virgil Van Dijk ruled out with illness.

Cody Gakpo was named in midfield alongside the returning Alexis Mac Allister and Curtis Jones while Luis Diaz, Darwin Nuñez and Harvey Elliott formed the front three. With such upheaval across all thirds, it wasn’t ever going to be a straight-forward game for the Reds.

And it wasn’t.

Arsenal dominated the first-half and were no doubt disappointed to go in at the break level. Had it not been for Konate, it would’ve been a completely different story.

Gomez, carelessly, lost the ball in his own defensive third and with Liverpool out of shape, it appeared as though Kai Havertz’s pass across goal was going to be converted by Reiss Nelson. The Arsenal forward connected with the ball but Konate, who had gobbled up the ground to get back, slid in to make the block. With Alisson between the sticks, no effort is ever a guaranteed goal, but, given the positioning, this effort looked destined to beat the Brazilian shot-stopper. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was a goal-saving challenge from the Liverpool No. 5.

In the second half, Konate bailed Trent Alexander-Arnold out of trouble on a few occasions after Gabriel Martinelli had gotten the better of the Liverpool skipper. The first time, the Frenchman checked his run to stop the cut-back across goal. The second time, the former RB Leipzig man made the block as the Arsenal No. 11 tried to fire an early cross into the penalty area.

It was a continuation of what had occurred at Anfield a couple of weeks ago. Konate bossed the Arsenal forward whenever there was a one-on-one battle between the two.

In that game though, he was paired alongside the formidable Van Dijk. This time around, he was the leader of the backline. It was something Klopp flagged in his post-match interview: “I stood with him yesterday and said ‘Look to your left and right, who should lead that back line’, he said ‘me!’.”

It wasn’t necessarily a coming-of-age performance, but Konate made a point.

Without Van Dijk in this team, there’s still a defensive leader within the ranks. And for a second successive match against Arsenal, Konate had the highest FotMob rating of all centre-backs. He had a 7.7 at Anfield in December and a 7.4 yesterday at the Emirates.

Personally, I thought it should’ve been higher. The 24-year-old completed 85% of his passes, recovered the ball on four occasions and had a 100% record in duels. Combine that with the goal-saving block he made and it is little wonder he was named Player of the Match.

Away from the stats though, he impressed just as much. He limited the threat of Havertz and completely nullified Martinelli. All while playing alongside someone who is still learning the ropes in Quansah. There’s also the video after the first Liverpool goal and it shows the players walking back to the centre circle. Konate is visibly telling his teammates to focus and see out the game.

These are characteristics we don’t usually see, but he stepped up in the absence of Van Dijk, and, to an extent, Salah. They’re both leaders in the dressing room. Liverpool lost a number of senior players this summer and they’ve been without Thiago and Andrew Robertson. There’s a void and Konate stepped up to fill it in this particular game.

Konate has no doubt had better games for Liverpool and he will definitely have better ones during his career for the Reds, but this might turn out to be one of his most important ones. Not just as a player, but as a dressing room leader.

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