Jesse Marsch has seen this all before. Just days after his appointment as head coach of RB Leipzig, one of his star players is being snaffled away by Liverpool. In his previous role at Red Bull Salzburg, the club’s social media even joked about it. ‘Who is next?’ they asked.
Recruiting players who have learned their game within the Red Bull organisation has become a theme for Liverpool. Takumi Minamino was the previous one but Sadio Mane had been at Salzburg too. Naby Keita was at Salzburg and Leipzig before arriving at Anfield.
Liverpool need no extra reason to pursue Ibrahima Konate, of course. This is a central defender of speed, strength and skill, who, at the age of 22, is ready to take the next step. Already there is excitement at the potential of a partnership with Virgil van Dijk.
But it is no coincidence that Liverpool continue to turn to the same clubs when they make their moves in the transfer market. The Red Bull teams ascribe to the philosophy of Ralf Rangnick, the man who became director of football at both clubs in the summer of 2012.
His fast, proactive brand of football, with its emphasis on high intensity, has seen him labelled the godfather of gegenpressing. Jurgen Klopp is a long-time admirer, once describing Rangnick as “one of the best if not the best German coach” of them all.
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Julian Nagelsmann put his own spin on things at Leipzig, increasing focus on possession. But the ethos has remained. Nagelsmann has acknowledged that he adopted Rangnick’s counter-pressing ideas in his earlier role at Hoffenheim – it is partly why he got the job.
The appointment of Marsch provides similar continuity. Prior to his appointment at Salzburg, described by Klopp as a ‘benchmark modern European club’, he had been Rangnick’s assistant at Leipzig. Few can claim to have greater clarity in terms of ideology.
In short, Liverpool know what they are getting. Speaking to Marsch about this earlier in the season, it was clear that he understood Liverpool’s thinking because the tenets of Red Bull’s philosophy are ones shared by Klopp. Footballing brothers with the same father.
“Jurgen Klopp is a very intelligent, strategic recruiter,” Marsch told Sky Sports. “He is influenced by Ralf’s football. Certainly, at Borussia Dortmund and at Liverpool, he has played a version of what we do – but his own version which I really respect.
“Even when I talk to our scouts, I first say, ‘Can we understand which leagues in which countries play the most intense football, and then which clubs within those leagues play similarly to us?’ That is so that when we are looking for these young players we can start here.
“Well, Jurgen starts – and he often stops – with what is happening at Salzburg and Leipzig and Dortmund because he knows that those players have already been instructed and been given the foundation in the qualities that he values in his teams.”
Liverpool endured an atypical season in which their usual pressing game was more difficult to implement due to chronic injury problems and a testing schedule. It was a triumph of sorts that they were able to recover sufficiently to achieve a third-place finish.
But even in a season in which Liverpool rarely looked like Liverpool, they still had the second lowest PPDA – opposition passes allowed per defensive action. That is to say that on this key pressing metric only Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds hunted the ball back with greater gusto.
That intensity is fundamental at the Red Bull-owned teams. Liverpool’s PPDA number was 10.4 in the Premier League this past season but Leipzig’s was even lower in the Bundesliga – allowing only 10.1 opposition passes per defensive action.
The significance of this is that it aids player development.
“One of the beauties of playing this way with young players is that they grow quickly because the speed of the game is so fast that they have to,” Marsch explained. “It forces them to grow and get better and the learning curve is steeper.”
This is more obviously applicable to those attack-minded players such as Mane, Keita and Minamino, the ones obliged to press from the front, rather than a defender like Konate. But a pressing game hones skills in a defender that are just as important to Klopp.
In the Liverpool system, it is essential that a centre-back is comfortable with a high defensive line. It is not just physical qualities such as speed that are required. They must be able to identify those pressing triggers – the moment to drop, when to push up safely.
At 22, Konate is just at the start of his journey but Liverpool can be confident that any transition should be smooth in this respect. He himself has described the Bundesliga as “attack-minded with lots of pace and passion” and that sounds a lot like life at Anfield.
Hey @LFC, who's next? 😉
// #Mane #Keita #Minamino #MadeinSalzburg pic.twitter.com/4XYO87OKSh
Neither Minamino nor Keita have been unqualified successes, of course. But that only serves to highlight just how convinced that Klopp, sporting director Michael Edwards, and everyone at Liverpool must be to stick to the recruitment strategy, nevertheless.
In Konate, they have acquired a player once identified by Rangnick as having the potential to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona one day. Marsch might well have guessed that the more likely destination for the young defender would be Klopp’s Liverpool.
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