PROSPECT | Ibrahima Konaté

Despite missing most of this season with a torn muscle fibre in his leg, Ibrahima Konaté remains as one of the most promising young defenders currently plying his trade in the Bundesliga. Born in Paris, the young Frenchman has surprised many with his rapid rise over recent years since his free transfer move to RB Leipzig from French Ligue 2 side Sochaux. With interest growing in the 20-year-old from some of Europe’s biggest clubs despite his lack of playing time this term, it’s certainly easy to state that Ibrahima Konaté will become a household name in the not too distant future for football fans worldwide.

Born in the suburbs of Paris in May of 1999, Ibrahima Konaté was one of seven children, all brothers. Like many, Konaté spent most of his younger years playing in the streets of the French capital. Nicknamed ‘Ibu’ by his mother, the young Frenchman would quickly develop a love for the sport at an early age. But it wouldn’t be in Paris or even northern France where Konaté would enjoy his break in professional football but rather 350 miles to the south with second division side FC Sochaux. Despite interest from Stade de Rennais and Caen amongst others, his move to Sochaux was sealed thanks to his mother’s approval of the clubs excellent teaching facilities: “I went to visit the academy’s facilities with my mother, she saw at the school level they were serious so I joined them,” he stated back in 2018.

Moving to Sochaux in 2016, Konaté would go on to make a big impact at the club. After playing nine times for Sochaux II in the fifth division of French football, the young central defender made his debut at the age of 17 against Auxuerre in February 2017. The result on this occasion wouldn’t go his way with Sochaux losing 1-0 on the night but the towering defender would go on to string together some strong performance for Les Lionceaux.

13 appearances later for Sochaux and amid broken down contract negotiations with the club, German side RB Leipzig swooped to seal Konaté’s signature much to the dismay of the defender’s boyhood club. A quote on the French club’s website reading: “Sochaux have been informed that Konaté will not sign his first professional contract with the club that educated him and gave him the chance at senior level. Losing such a promising talent is a major blow for the club. We have taken in his decision with disappointment and a certain bitterness.”

Bitterness aside, his ascent to stardom has been quick in Leipzig. With over 70 appearances to date for the German outfit, Ibrahim Konaté is a large part of the club’s future plans.

Making the move to RB Leipzig official for the 2017/18 season, the young French centre-back would go on to make 22 appearances in his first season with the east German side including four in the Europa League. His second season would prove to be his real break-out. Making 43 appearances across all competitions, Konaté helped Die Roten Bullen to a third-placed finish in the Bundesliga with the club’s defence conceding just 29 times in the process. His impressive performances during the 2018/19 season would lead to a French U-21 international debut in March 2019.

His strong and dominant performances during his opening two seasons were extremely well received by fans, pundits and his coaches alike. Former boss Ralf Rangnick constantly sung the players praise in the media. “I’m particularly delighted with our coup in signing Ibrahima Konaté. He’s so good that he could play for Real Madrid or Barcelona one day.”

This year though has been one to forget for Konaté to date but not because of his performances on the field, rather the injury he sustained after just eight appearances in October. In fact, the German side were unbeaten through his seven matches prior to their home loss to Lyon in the Champions League, Konaté leaving the field after just 24 minutes of play with a muscle problem. The news was bleak, the central defender would be sidelined for months, missing the club’s next 27 matches up until play was suspended due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

Standing at 6’4”, Konaté cuts an imposing figure at the back for Leipzig but it’s not his just his size that’s intimidating, his all-round play makes him one of the best young defenders in Europe. Playing alongside his French counterparts Dayot Upamecano and Nordi Mukiele in Leipzig, Konaté plays a huge part in arguably the most exciting defence in the top five European leagues with many seeing this trio as the future of French football.

Capable of clinically winning his aerial battles due to his huge frame but also adept at taking possession of the ball and playing out from the back, the 20-year-old exudes all the qualities of a modern-day ball-playing centre half. Without doubt, there are few defenders around the globe as good as Konaté at his age.

Defensively, Konaté can seemingly do it all. Positioning, tackling, concentration, poise – the Frenchman has all the qualities to become one of the best defenders in the world. Couple this with his rapid pace that can match even the quickest strikers in Europe and his bullying physique, then it’s hard to not see Konaté going on to be a key figure for RB Leipzig for years to come. His statistics during the 5000 minutes of play he has amassed to date at Leipzig are certainly impressive. The centre-back makes on average 1.7 tackles, 1.6 interceptions and 4.1 clearances per match he plays in. Those statistics looking even better when you factor in that Leipzig enjoy the majority of possession in most matches they play.

His rapid development at Leipzig is largely down to the influence of current Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann. Widely recognised as the upcoming manager in Europe, it is expected that the 32-year-old gaffer will soon be going head-to-head with some of the world’s best in the biggest tournaments. Nagelsmann’s tactical set up at Leipzig has in particular set Ibrahima Kanote free to thrive.

Normally deployed in the centre of a flat back three for Leipzig, Konaté plays a key role in the team’s formation and tactical approach as he anchors the back line. Nagelsmann’s approach is to keep possession out wide before playing the ball to the left or right centre-back. In turn it is then played centrally to Konaté who spreads the ball to the opposite wing, opening up whoever Leipzig are facing. With a pass completion percentage of 89.8% in his matches played so far this term, the role certainly suits the technically-gifted Konaté.

Ibrahima Konaté comes to life when playing alongside fellow French centre-back Dayot Upamecano. The pair form a formidable partnership that strikes fear into most Bundesliga strikers with Robert Lewandowski stating; “Leipzig have two really good centre-backs in Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté” after the pair helped Leipzig beat Bayern for the first time in their history a few seasons back.

Konaté himself has on occasion spoken about his tandem with Upamecano. “Upa’s like a brother to me,” Konaté told press last season. “We became friends on the first day. I’ll never forget how he helped me in my first training sessions, so I could settle in quickly. And there’s good chemistry between us on the pitch — if one of us gets into trouble, the other’s there to help out.” And whilst Upamecano is a year ahead in his development at Leipzig, Konaté isn’t far behind.

Quite rightly after another sensational season with RB Leipzig, Upamecano is taking all the plaudits right now from fans and pundits alike. However, with the increasing likeliness of a huge transfer on the horizon, the German title chasers will look to Konaté to fill any void left behind. After all, if Dayot Upamecano is the current king of Leipzig then Ibrahima Konaté is certainly heir to the throne.

Nathan Evans.

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