Konate or Matip? Liverpool’s big Champions League final decision

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One of the biggest decisions awaiting Jurgen Klopp ahead of the Champions League final is who should start alongside Virgil van Dijk in central defense.

Should the Liverpool manager call upon the experience of Joel Matip against Real Madrid at Paris’ Stade de France on Saturday night? Or should he pick his up-and-coming Parisian, Ibrahima Konate?

Matip has had a stellar season, one uninterrupted by injury and arguably the 30-year-old’s best since he signed from German club Schalke in the summer of 2016. His defensive performances have garnered praise, so much so that he was voted Premier League player of the month for February.

Meanwhile, Konate has slotted into the side seamlessly in his debut season at Anfield following a £ 36 million move from another Bundesliga side, RB Leipzig. Liverpool’s lucky charm has not only enabled increased squad rotation – which has been key in a marathon soon-to-be 63-game season – but of its 28 appearances for the club to date, he is yet to be on the losing side. At 23, Konate could be shoring up Liverpool’s defense for the next decade.

Former Liverpool center-back Jamie Carragher said during an Instagram live video on Sunday that he would side with Konate over Matip because of the extra pace the Frenchman brings.

Konate’s speed against Madrid’s Vinicius Junior could be paramount, given how much of a handful the Brazil forward is. When the two sides met in the Champions League quarter-finals last season, the space in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold was targeted by Madrid and Vinicius ran riot, scoring twice in a 3-1 first leg win.

Playing center-back for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool does mean you have to help cover at full-back.

If Fabinho fails to fully recover from his hamstring injury in time to play in midfield then the important task of containment will be even more crucial for the right-sided center-back. Speed ​​is something that will help. Matip is quick – maybe not with Konate’s pace – but he can cover ground well in a hurry.

He has proven plenty of times this season he can get back in time to quell the danger, and did so crucially in the FA Cup final against Chelsea 12 days ago.

Christian Pulisic was running in behind with four team-mates in support and Alexander-Arnold as the last man back.

Once inside the Liverpool box, the United States international has no time to take Matip on. Matip’s powers of recovery mean there is no square-pass or shot to be had either and the ball ends up being cleared for a corner.

Another thing in Matip’s favor is the fact he has played in a Champions League final before, for Liverpool in 2019, and helped them win it. That kind of experience could prove vital.

The data also sides with Matip.

If we look at the 30-year-old’s tackling duel rate, he boasts a rating of 84 out of 99, whereas Konate is way down at 16 out of 99 for the same metric.

These ratings, provided by smarterscout, are based on the quality of opponent. For example, if you are winning a header against an attacker who is shorter and less combative in the air, a defender’s rating for winning any such duel will reflect that.

The above data set suggests Matip is the more complete defender. And when watching him in action this season, not many would disagree with that assessment – even given Konate’s encouraging sturdiness for such a young center-half.

Matip is in front for open-play headers with a rating of 49/99, slightly better than Konate on 41. For set-play headers, however, Matip’s rating is way ahead of Konate’s, 88 to 31. This suggests he is much more dominant when facing opposition set pieces.

Both players are comfortable when dribbling past opposing players.

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We know how much Matip likes to channel his inner Franz Beckenbauer with those mazy dribbles into opposition territory. Konate has similar capabilities when it comes to footwork and close control. His rating of 99 puts him ahead of Matip on 89 in the area of ​​defensive ball carrying.

What has been most impressive about Konate’s performances overall is how he has never looked out of his depth.

Since his Premier League debut against Crystal Palace in September, each performance has seemingly seen him grow in confidence as well as stature.

In the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City last month, he not only scored the opening goal but made important interceptions throughout.

When Phil Foden passes the ball to Jack Grealish here, Konate is initially out-manoeuvred by Raheem Sterling…

… But there is no sign of panic from the Frenchman, who hurries after the England forward. Luckily, the pass by Grealish is played behind Sterling so Konate is able to race out to the wing and hold off Foden.

Konate easily outmuscles Foden and, just as he dribbles away, gets pulled back by the City attacker, winning a free kick.

So, who will Klopp pick for Saturday’s final?

Konate has played the last four Champions League games, against Benfica and Villarreal, which highlights the trust Klopp has in him. The final, in his home city, will happen one year to the day after Liverpool officially announced they had signed him.

Matip played in the first five group games, then featured in the second legs of the last-16 and quarter-final ties at Anfield against Inter Milan and Benfica. His 43 appearances this season show he has been first choice alongside Virgil van Dijk more often than Konate.

As we can see from Van Dijk’s numbers, with respect to Matip and Konate, it is crucial the Dutch center-half is involved come Saturday evening after the knee injury he picked up against Southampton in the penultimate game of the Premier League season.

Matip and Konate have shown they are sturdy enough when pairing up together in Van Dijk’s recent absence.

Should he not make the starting line-up against Real Madrid, they could do the job together. However, they lacked organization in Sunday’s home win over Wolves and it became even more clear during those 90 tense minutes as the title was decided that Van Dijk’s presence is like that of a judge. He keeps order.

That seniority will be needed against Karim Benzema and company.

(Photo: Jan Kruger / UEFA via Getty Images)

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