Jürgen Klopp would have watched Ibrahima Konaté play his first-ever World Cup game on Tuesday, and one aspect of the Liverpool man’s performance will have stood out.
On Tuesday night, Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konaté made just his third appearance for France, and his first at a major tournament, in the World Cup clash with Australia.
It briefly threatened to go awry for the 23-year-old when Craig Goodwin gave Australia a shock lead in the ninth minute, but a double from Olivier Giroud, and goals from Adrien Rabiot and Kylian Mbappé, ensured that France ran out comfortable victors in the end.
On an individual level, Konaté, who will be fighting to hold onto his place when Manchester United’s Raphaël Varane returns to full fitness, produced an impressive display.
Tougher games lie ahead, of course, starting with Denmark on Saturday, but this was an excellent foundation from which to build. France may have been dominant, recording 62 per cent possession and facing just four shots, but Konaté still had work to do.
The Socceroos looked to hurt the holders by whipping balls into the box, but time and again Konaté positioned himself expertly to clear the danger.
He also showcased one of his best attributes, his reading of the game, and defended on the front foot as both Didier Deschamps and Jürgen Klopp would expect.
Konaté combines this intelligence with power and he used the latter to good effect too, frequently muscling his way in front of the opponent to snuff out attacks.
When Benjamin Pavard moved forward (or was caught out of position on more than one occasion), Konaté had to cover the right-back position too, but he looked comfortable doing so.
Raphael Jucobin, the editor-in-chief at Get French Football News, gave him a strong seven out of 10 rating for his debut on the biggest stage. The only player he awarded a higher rating was Dayot Upamecano. And that’s certainly justified by the numbers.
The defensive duo were the most prominent players in the match, with Konaté recording 110 touches and Upamecano 130.
The Reds man finished the game with a perfect duel record, winning all three of his ground battles and four out of four headers. Only Upamecano, meanwhile, bettered his six ball recoveries (with eight).
Konaté was also a threat from set-pieces, connecting with two corners, and perhaps should have marked the occasion with a goal.
Yes, you may point to Australia’s limitations as you read these figures, but that’s less applicable when it comes to distribution. Konaté completed 88 out of 100 passes, ranking him second behind Upamecano (114), five progressive passes (fourth), 10 passes into the final third (second) and seven long balls (third).
Perhaps the standout feature of his performance was his raking diagonals to Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé on the flanks. Konaté would approach the centre circle with the ball and then boom a pass out wide, setting up two of the best one-versus-one players in the world for a run at their full-back.
One pass found Mbappé level with the edge of the penalty area, turning harmless possession into a potential goalscoring attack with a single stroke.
These balls haven’t really been a prominent part of Konaté’s game at Liverpool, and it’s probably fair to say long passing hasn’t necessarily been seen as one of his primary strengths either. He’s largely deferred those duties to a specialist in Virgil van Dijk.
The expectation has always been that Konaté will only get better, though, and here we may be witnessing that improvement before our eyes. He’s honing another aspect of his game, and possibly learning from Van Dijk, with no better player to ping those balls into than Mbappé to make it stand out.
We already know that these passes can be a playmaking weapon, having seen the Dutchman thump countless passes to Mohamed Salah in the lead-up to big chances.
And now Klopp might just be able to look to another player to offer that threat, helping set up Salah, Luis Díaz and many more.