Ibrahima Konate improved Liverpool’s title defense with his role model

As the dust finally settles on Liverpool’s 2021/22 campaign, it feels like not enough has been done with their formidable defensive record. They have conceded just 26 times in 38 league appearances, meaning this season was their seventh-best goal per game of the 107 the club have spent in the top flight.

Although Liverpool’s first-choice goalkeeper and defenders are among the best players in their positions in the world, there was no guarantee the Reds would be as good at the back as they have been this season. The three senior centre-backs were returning from long injury absences while Ibrahima Konate was about to get a taste of English football for the first time.

His campaign may not have been flawless, but the former RB Leipzig man has done very well overall. Even leaving aside his defensive efforts, Konate’s goals against Benfica and Manchester City ensured his debut campaign with the Reds will be remembered.

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The 23-year-old’s performances throughout the campaign saw him called up by Didier Deschamps to the senior France squad for the first time. Konaté has since spoken of two players he sees as role models, one of which is obvious.

Sergio Ramos, the other, maybe less, but he named Virgil van Dijk as the best central defender in the world. “It’s just the start and I hope to learn a lot and improve,” he said, and there are no better-placed defenders to help in that regard than van Dijk.

Jurgen Klopp has cleverly paired Konate with his best centre-back as often as he could this season. The Liverpool number five has played almost two-thirds (1,605) of his 2,490 minutes alongside the Dutch colossus. He then had 570 minutes with Joel Matip, 225 with Joe Gomez and a memorable run with Nat Phillips at the San Siro against AC Milan to top it all off.

On a minutes per goal basis, Konaté had the best record with Gomez as they only conceded once. However, a pair of cup games with Norwich City and the second half of a Carabao Cup tie with Leicester hardly live up to the ‘Ibou’ games played alongside van Dijk.

They have lined up together for all three cup finals in 2021/22 (though only extra time in the first of them) as well as four other Champions League matches. Klopp also used Konate and Virgil for famous wins over both Manchester clubs as well as draws with Chelsea and Tottenham. In short, they have played several of the biggest games of the campaign at the heart of the Reds’ defence.

Liverpool have kept their sheets clean in eight of the 17 full games they have played together, a success rate slightly below the team’s overall record of 32 from 63 games. Perhaps more interesting was the fact that they only conceded a goal every 123 minutes.

It wasn’t as strong as van Dijk’s record with Matip – one every 150 – but it topped the best combinations of 2019/20 (and we’ll skim last season as none of the 20 pairs used by Klopp have played more than 644 minutes together). The Reds’ most effective central defensive partnership in the Premier League title-winning campaign was again Matip and van Dijk, who conceded every 104 minutes.

After a brief injury absence in March (his only of the campaign), Konaté has started 11 of the last 18 matches of 2021/22, one more than Matip. With the gargantuan importance of these fixtures as part of Liverpool’s four-time bid, we can look to the last two months of this season as when Konate overtook Matip as van Dijk’s main partner. If that turns out to be the case, the master and his apprentice have already demonstrated that they can handle whatever challenges the next season throws at them.

Rebecca R. Santistevan