InterviewFrom reluctant defender to Reds No.5 - Ibrahima Konate reveals all
Ibrahima Konate never wants to be sure.
He wasn’t sure back at the beginning, when as a youth player in Sochaux’s academy, its director, Eric Hely, suggested his footballing attributes were more suited to a defensive position than the advanced roles he had preferred since first playing on the streets of Paris, where the raw physicality of games alongside his six older brothers and their friends – Konate also has a younger sister – sharpened his focus and taught him plenty.
In fact, for a while he actively argued against the idea, disputing it with a familiar teenage forcefulness. Until Hely’s judgment proved to be correct.
“He told me, ‘Yes, you can be a good midfielder, because you have quality, you are strong, you have power,’” recalls Konate. “‘But you are very fast and when you play in midfield the pitch is only behind you. And if you are a defender and have the pitch in front, this will be very easy for you. And I think as a defender you can be a great, great defender, and a good midfielder.’”
Just half a season playing in Sochaux’s senior team in France’s second tier, in 2017, turned that reluctant defender into a natural one – and a target for clubs across Europe searching for gems.
In swooped RB Leipzig that summer, transporting ‘Ibou’ to the Bundesliga on a free transfer. Some suggested the move was too soon. He, however, saw the opportunity as the logical next step: push yourself, dive in. Doubters only increased his motivation.
Four years later, a similar scenario was in Konate’s hands. Stay at Leipzig, comfortable and secure in his position. Or accept an invitation from Liverpool; take another jump into the unknown.
“In myself I said, ‘Yeah, OK, if you go there you will be with big defenders, a big team.’ Every player on this team is a great player,” the 22-year-old tells Liverpoolfc.com during an exclusive chat at the AXA Training Centre.
“And I said, ‘Yes, if you come here, OK it will not be easy but you know you.’ I know myself, I know I love to work, and I love the challenge. Because yes, if I come here it’s a big sacrifice because I know at Leipzig for sure I will play all the games in the season, but is this good for me or not? Because maybe at Leipzig I would not work more, because maybe in myself I will say, ‘Yes, OK, I will play every game, I don’t need to work more.’ If I go to Liverpool, you don’t have the choice. If you don’t play you have to go to the gym more than the other players, for work and work and maybe to become better than the other players.
“I said, ‘Yes, I need this’ for it to always be in my head that I am not sure. If you are sure in your life sometimes you take something less. You need something that will keep pushing you every day, every day. I took this decision to come to Liverpool also for this.
“And I said also, come here and I will train every day with the best players in the world and every player dreams of this. I thought, ‘I have to come here.’”
That sense of purpose and ambition has continually driven Konate throughout his career.
At 15, he left his family to take up residence at Sochaux’s academy, 270 miles south-east of Paris, vowing to himself he would not return without making it as a professional. Many of his peers succumbed to homesickness.
The centre-back was taken off at the interval on his Bundesliga debut, away at Cologne in October 2017, and found he had to rapidly deal with the increased difficulty of the league and competing with a dominant Bayern Munich side he had previously only experienced by playing with them on FIFA.
“The quality of player was different; fast, power physically,” Konate explains. “Everything was different, you know. And after, you don’t have a choice, you have to adapt to this.
“In our team, every player was young and this was important and good for me also. I think when you work in training every day with this intensity, after on the pitch of course it’s more or less [the same] for every player. I think this was good for me.
“Of course, in your head you say, ‘Yes, OK, it will not be easy but I don’t have the choice, I am on the pitch.’ You play and you don’t have to think if it’s this player or not, you have to play. They have two arms, two legs, one head like me, I don’t need to think, ‘Who is this player?’ After the game, when it’s finished, you can say, ‘I played against Lewandowski.’”
Konate’s first season at Leipzig coincided with Naby Keita’s last, the midfielder having agreed at the outset of the 2017-18 campaign to switch to the Reds the following summer.
A shared language, French, meant the pair swiftly became friends – “I don’t have the words to describe what he did in the German league, it was amazing” – and that relationship resurfaced when, after 95 appearances for a Die Roten Bullen side that developed into regular contenders domestically and in the Champions League, the prospect of Ibou’s own move to Merseyside emerged and he conducted due diligence on what to expect under the management of Jürgen Klopp.
“Yes, I spoke a little bit with him,” says the No.5. “I never asked about the city because I come here for my job, to play football, I don’t speak with someone for going out. No, I don’t need this.
“But yes, of course, if I speak with him it’s about: how is the club? How is the mentality of the club? How are the players? How is the coach? Because if you don’t know someone he can say everything, anything, ‘Yes, I am like that.’ But you have to speak with someone who has been with him a long time, because he will tell you the truth. And yes, of course I asked some questions.”
The best of Konate and Phillips versus AC Milan
Life at Liverpool has, so far, more than matched Konate’s hopes.
The Frenchman arrived into a settled dressing room of Premier League and Champions League winners who are, visibly, determined to land major silverware again this season. Klopp’s side have lost only one of their 24 fixtures in all competitions. They sit just a point off the league summit and cruised into the Champions League last 16 by winning every match in the group phase.
Konate has made seven starts so far, including the triumph at Old Trafford in October – “when you play against United, you make a clean sheet and you win 5-0, it is amazing, it was historic” – on a day when he additionally delighted fans with a firm but casually smiling intervention to a brief fracas between the teams.
“I don’t know why I did this; it was natural, you know,” he notes with a grin. “But after the game I received so many messages, maybe 50 times my friends sent me the videos. I said, ‘No!’ Because it was natural, you know. But yes, it was funny. I just protect my family.”
Most recently, he delivered a Player of the Match-winning display at AC Milan a week ago, his efforts in tandem with Nathaniel Phillips described as ‘absolutely exceptional’ by Klopp.
“I am very happy to be here,” he states. “When we are in the dressing room we love everybody, and I think we don’t have players with arrogance, we don’t have this here, and I love this.”
There’s even a fellow Dragon Ball Z fan in Takumi Minamino.
And his thirst for new and tricky challenges? Sated every day in training sessions.
“I don’t say it was easy, but you know in the Bundesliga you have the time to think, ‘Yes, he will do this, he will do this, he will do this.’ Here, just in training when you train against Sadio or Mo, you know they have a lot of experience, it’s different,” says Konate.
“Sometimes when you have the ball, how they will press you it’s amazing, it’s impossible, [he] takes the ball and finishes, it’s a goal. I say, ‘OK, I have to be focused every time, every second, every minute.’
“It’s like that to work and I think this is a player for the level of the final of the Champions League. If you train with them every day, of course you will grow and grow and you will be better every day.”
That you can be sure of.