At 20 years old, footballers are going to have peaks and valleys in their form. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of defenders.
Since joining Liverpool on loan from Schalke 04 on the January transfer deadline day, Ozan Kabak has had his ups and downs in red.
High profile errors against Leicester on debut and some nervy moments against Everton in the Anfield derby have been counterbalanced with assured performances against Leipzig (x2) in Europe and away to Wolves in the Premier League recently.
The Reds have an option to make the Turkish international’s deal permanent for £18,000,000 in the summer and there many who doubted — in the immediate aftermath of the Leicester and Everton — whether Liverpool would pull the trigger and seal the deal in the summer.
But these rapid and harsh appraisals spectacularly ignored the context. First of all, Kabak had only been at the club a number of days before the Leicester game. It’s difficult to transition from one league to another at the best of times, but doubly so in a global pandemic.
Without a pre-season to help tune fully into the demands of playing in a Jurgen Klopp defence, initial teething problems were inevitable for the Turkey international. Kabak has also had to play next to Jordan Henderson and Fabinho — both of whom, while the Brazilian especially has been good in the role, are midfielders — and there was no real guiding presence to talk him through the games.
The former Galatasaray player plied his trade in the Bundesliga on the right side of the defence, but he has played on the left for Liverpool. It is only a small alteration on the surface but it is difficult to undo a learned behavior, especially in a pressure situation and — given the crazily compacted nature of the Reds’ fixture schedule — with relatively little training time.
Liverpool’s season was — and has been — on the precipice of disaster with the injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip putting additional pressure on the Anfield club’s defensive stock. Coming from Schalke — whose form this season, one win, is threatening to break records for all the wrong reasons — Kabak has had a heavy burden to carry. His confidence, understandably, must have been rattled by events in the Bundesliga and wouldn’t have been helped by his early performances in red.
However, after a strong performance — despite the defeat — against Chelsea, the Turk has turned the corner in recent weeks. His lot has clearly been helped by the familiarity of playing regularly with Nat Phillips — finally, consistency in selection for a team who have had 18(!) different centre half pairings in the league alone this season — and the addition of Fabinho back to midfield has stiffened the team in a defensive sense.
What’s been most impressive is the role Kabak has played, acting as the more measured, disciplined centre half. With Schalke, the Turkey international was a front foot, aggressive stopper. In recent weeks, though, he has been the organizer and has played in a more refined manner allowing Phillips — who is in the 99% percentile for aerial duel wins in Europe’s top 5 leagues — to engage the opposition and challenge for every ball.
Nowhere was Kabak’s newfound maturity better shown than in the Wolves game where Liverpool — despite playing poorly overall — toughed out a 1-0 win. The Turk made three interceptions, two tackles won six duels and made six clearances. With Phillips — whose own run of form deserves plaudits — aggressively challenging for the ball, both in the air and on the ground, the 20-year-old showed a game intelligence far belying his 20 years to mop up second balls on several occasions.
A trait a defender ideally needs to have to play for the Reds is the ability to progress the ball — both in terms of carrying and passing — and Kabak has surprised people with how comfortable he is with the ball at his feet. At Molineux, his pass success rate stood at 88%, two of which were accurate long balls. Showing a huge measure of confidence, the Turk also strode out of defence late on, successfully completing a dribble and winning a free-kick that eased pressure on Liverpool.
Given his age and considering, there is no position on the field that necessitates experience and game savvy as much as centre half, Kabak is bound to make mistakes between now and the end of the season. That is natural.
But in the two Leipzig wins and the recent defeat of Wolves — all three games in which the Reds kept clean sheets — the Turkey international has shown enough potential for Liverpool to exercise their right to permanently take him to Anfield. If he can perform so admirably in difficult circumstances, then it is exciting to think what Kabak can do as he improves with time and possibly next to the world’s best defender, van Dijk.