June 28, 2022, 8:50

Ibrahima Konate: When Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp calls, you listen!

Ibrahima Konate: When Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp calls, you listen!

After an unprecedented injury crisis at the back wrecked Liverpool’s title defence last season, the club’s famed transfer committee highlighted just one area of the team that needed strengthening this campaign – the centre of defence.

Manager Jurgen Klopp also knew exactly who he wanted as the club’s only summer signing, with Ibrahima Konate – or ‘Ibou’ to his friends – arriving at Anfield in May after Liverpool paid his £36m release clause at RB Leipzig.

And as the softly spoken centre back, who grew up in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, explained when we sat down to meet earlier this week, when Klopp calls, you listen!

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Mohamed Salah and Ibrahima Konate celebrate Liverpool's 2-0 win over Inter Milan in the San Siro

“Yes, I spoke with him two or three times,” Konate said. “If Jurgen Klopp calls you, you think a lot about this! He does not call you for nothing!

“But we speak a lot, about me, my private life, about him also, the club, the mentality of the players, everything.

“It is not just me and him, you know, it is about everything I take this decision – the mentality of the club, the players with who I will work every day, about the city, about everything and with this, I made my decision.”

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Konate, as with other new arrivals at Liverpool under Klopp such as Andy Robertson and Fabinho, has had to be patient so far in his debut season, with Klopp often preferring new charges to get acclimatised and up to speed first in training.

“To be a Liverpool player means you have to deal with situations you would not have to deal with maybe somewhere else because there you play all the time,” was how Klopp recently explained his thinking.

Not that Konate had been given any first-team assurances when signed by the German, however, with the new man instead backing himself to break into the Liverpool starting XI as he had also done at his previous clubs Sochaux and Leipzig.

“I asked him if I will play or not,” Konate recalled, “and he said, ‘yes, you will play.’ He did not tell me, ‘yes you will play a lot like you are the first defender, or you will not play a lot like you are the last defender.’

“But it was always like that with me – when I was with Sochaux, when I go to Germany, the coach never told me, ‘Yes you will play a lot.’

“No, it is always with me, I train a lot and after step by step, I win my place and why not with Liverpool I cannot do this? And this is good, as after this, I will work a lot.”

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Konate made his Reds debut against Palace in September

Patience is a virtue, though, and the 6ft 4in Konate was right to believe in himself as in September he made his Reds debut alongside Virgil van Dijk in a 3-0 home win over Crystal Palace.

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Sixteen appearances later and Konate has yet to lose a competitive fixture in a Liverpool shirt, all bar three of those games having been won, with just 14 goals conceded in the process.

In fact, the last time the 22-year-old started a match and lost was for Leipzig in November 2020!

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Highlights of the Carabao Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool from Wembley stadium

One of those 14 victories, of course, came in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final with Chelsea as Konate, brought on in place of Joel Matip for extra time, and his Liverpool team-mates won their first trophy of the season after a hugely dramatic penalty shootout at Wembley.

At No 10 of 11 on the list, Konate was not expecting to have to take a spot-kick, but despite having never previously taken one and in front of his “big brothers, sister and friends,” he kept his cool from the spot to help his new team win a record-breaking ninth League Cup 11-10 on penalties.

“If I have to speak about the atmosphere, the fans of Liverpool or Chelsea were amazing. It was an incredible game, the intensity and everything was crazy, it was like the final of the Champions League,” he said.

“To watch this game was crazy and to play was a dream and after we win on penalties, the first one I’ve ever taken in my professional career.

“We did not practise – some players maybe, but they practise for the game, not for the [shootout]. But no, we did not practise it, but after everybody scored, then this was amazing for us.”

As at the home of football on Sunday when Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel introduced over £100m-worth of strikers late on in Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, Klopp has tended to give Konate the trickiest assignments this season.

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Liverpool defender Konate impressed in their 5-0 win at Manchester United (AP)

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That has meant away starts for the central defender at the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Inter Milan and AC Milan, all of which he came through with flying colours.

However, the Frenchman is also fully aware by now that the much-heard phrase – ‘there are no easy games in the Premier League’ – really is true.

“Of course – everybody says this,” he said. “You see this on the TV, but when you are on the pitch, it is more and more and more crazy. You do not have a bad team, if I can say this with respect for every team in the Bundesliga.

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Liverpool centre-back Konate says it is too early to compare him to team-mate Virgil van Dijk, but reveals he has ambitions to eventually become one of the world’s top defenders

“But sometimes in the Bundesliga you play against a team and you know you will win. But here you never know – you play against the side last in the table, but it will be as difficult as if you were playing against the team who are first, you know?

“And this is crazy in the Premier League, the intensity and power of the teams, the mentality, the fans, everything is crazy here.”

Liverpool discovered this again on Wednesday night when only narrowly getting past the bottom side in the Premier League, Norwich, to progress to the FA Cup quarter-finals and maintain their dreams of an unprecedented quadruple this season.

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Next up on Saturday are West Ham at Anfield, live on Sky Sports, as Liverpool once again look to close the gap on champions Man City at the top of the Premier League to just three points ahead of Sunday’s Manchester derby.

David Moyes’s side are one of just two to have inflicted defeat on the Reds in any competition this season – a 3-2 win in the league at the London Stadium in November – although as Konate explains, every Liverpool fixture now comes under the category of ‘must win’.

“Yes, yes, yes – we have to think like that. If we think yes, we will see… no, this is not the best mentality,” he said. “I think we have to think about yes, we have to win, win, win to have the chance to win something again.

Image:
Mohamed Salah and Ibrahima Konate celebrate Liverpool's 2-0 win over Inter Milan in the San Siro

“And if we think like that, we will be more focused. It is crazy to think like that, you know, but we have to think like a crazy guy and a crazy team. And we have an unbelievable team and I think if we are together, we will make some crazy things this season and we have to think like that.

“Everyone knows West Ham is a very good team, strong team, but yes, we have to think about this game and yes we are focussed now for this game and we will see on Saturday what happens.”

Whether Konate starts the Saturday Night Football clash or not, though, the always-smiling France defender with a love of manga and anime will be ready when Klopp next calls upon him – and given his imperious displays this season, you can be sure that won’t be too far away.

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