Ozan Kabak arrived at Liverpool on deadline day but is yet to make his debut for the club, so what can supporters expect from their new 20-year-old centre-back?
The Reds last-minute search for defensive reinforcements saw them land one of the deals of the winter window, with Kabak arriving from Schalke on an initial loan.
Given their clear desperation on deadline day, having paid just £1 million up front to secure the Turk for half a season and with no obligation to activate the £18 million purchase option, it is another masterstroke from Michael Edwards.
But while it is a short-term agreement, the hope will be that it is one that boosts Liverpool for the long term, with the ideal situation being Kabak staying on a permanent basis beyond the summer.
With anticipation growing ahead of Kabak’s first-team debut, it is worth assessing what the youngster can bring to Jurgen Klopp‘s side.
So who is Kabak, and how will he fit in at Liverpool?
Who is Ozan Kabak?
Career: Galatasaray (2018-2019), Stuttgart (2019), Schalke (2019-2021), Liverpool (2021- )
Top-flight experience: Super Lig (17), Bundesliga (57 apps); internationals (7 apps)
With his 21st birthday to come in March, Liverpool is already the fourth top-flight club Kabak has represented in his short career so far.
A product of the Galatasaray academy, the Ankara native made his debut for the Turkish Super Lig club as an 18-year-old in 2018.
By the start of the following campaign he was already a first-choice starter, forming the bedrock of Fatih Terim’s side.
Eight months after his debut, however, and Kabak was already on the move, joining Stuttgart on a four-and-a-half-year deal, with sporting director Michael Reschke lauding his decision “despite numerous other offers from well-known European clubs.”
“Ozan is one of the most promising defensive talents in Europe,” Reschke enthused, “and is therefore a very important cornerstone of our medium-term squad planning.”
Kabak himself described it as a “conscious decision” to leave the Super Lig for one of Europe’s top five leagues, with the young defender clearly very ambitious as he bids to reach the top level.
That ambition manifested itself in another move just five months on from signing for Stuttgart, this time after Schalke activated a €15 million release clause in his contract.
This represented a bargain fee for a player who was named the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Season and earned his first called up to the Turkey senior squad during his brief spell with Klopp’s boyhood club.
Kabak can, therefore, be described as upwardly mobile, and it comes as no surprise, then, that just over a year-and-a-half after his switch to Schalke, he has joined his own “childhood team” in Liverpool.
What are his strengths and weaknesses?
- Strengths: Aerial ability, tackling, passing, dribbling
- Weaknesses: Decision-making, disclipline
Upon joining Liverpool, Kabak described himself as a “ball-playing centre-back” who is “physically strong” and “good in the air” which, in a nutshell, perfectly fits the brief.
While he is not the tallest defender at 6’1″, the youngster boasts the aerial ability required in Klopp’s system, with only five centre-backs across Europe’s top five leagues averaging more duels won in the air than his 4.1 per 90 minutes.
Two of those, Burnley‘s James Tarkowski (4.2) and Southampton‘s 6’6″ giant Jannik Vestergaard (4.3), play in the Premier League, which highlights Kabak’s suitability to the battles expected in his time in England.
This translates to a real threat at the other end of the pitch, too, with Kabak explaining during his time at Stuttgart that it is “no great secret,” and of the six goals he scored in 55 outings in the Bundesliga he scored six times – four with his head.
Kabak marries that with strength in the tackle, while he is blessed with decent pace that allows him to recover well in dangerous situations, though he can be seen as rash at times.
His belief in his ability as a ball-player shows with his willingness to dribble the ball out from the back and play incisive vertical passes up the pitch, which is a quality particularly visible in Joel Matip and Joe Gomez‘s approach.
However, Kabak is certainly not the finished product, and perhaps the biggest area for him to work on under Klopp is his decision-making.
As mentioned, the Turk can be guilty of diving into challenges when it would have been better for him to stand off and snuff out the danger, which draws comparisons with Dejan Lovren.
There are also question marks over Kabak’s discipline, particularly following an incident that saw him appear to spit at Werder Bremen’s Ludwig Augustinsson in Schalke’s 3-1 defeat back in September.
I wish to sincerely apologize to Ludwig https://t.co/dlxr7akHrw was not my intention, it was an accident.I did not aim at him, the TV angle gives a deceptive view of the incident.I never did that before and won’t do it IN THE FUTURE, as it’s unsporting. This was very unlucky.
— Ozan KABAK (@ozankabak4) September 26, 2020
Kabak was subsequently fined €15,000 and banned for five games, but in a post on Twitter he claimed that “it was an accident” and that he had “never [done] that before and won’t do it in the future, as it’s unsporting.”
Given that he arrived with strong character references from a number of Klopp’s close contacts including David Wagner, ex-Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel and Stuttgart sporting director Sven Mislintat, there should be no concerns about his future conduct, however.
How will he slot in, and when?
Kabak is primarily right-sided, with Liverpool bringing in a centre-back for either side of the pairing on deadline day in him and the left-sided Ben Davies.
This presents a straightforward route for the 20-year-old into the starting lineup, with Kabak effectively competing with Fabinho and Nat Phillips for the role.
Fabinho is likely to remain as Klopp’s first-choice centre-back for the remainder of the campaign – unless Davies make a big impression in training – but the Brazilian is equally adept on either the left or the right.
Klopp could therefore pair Kabak with Fabinho and expect a cohesive unit, with the duo able to operate in the front-footed high line that has been central to the Reds’ success in recent years.
While there may be concerns over throwing the youngster in so soon after his arrival, the lack of specialist options at the back, along with his experience in the Bundesliga, makes him an essential starter at this point.
Giving Kabak an opportunity, perhaps as soon as the trip to Leicester on Saturday, would allow Klopp to move Jordan Henderson back into midfield, providing Liverpool a much-needed boost in the engine room.
The blend of speed, strength, aerial ability and composure on the ball should allow Fabinho and Kabak to form a strong unit at the back, with there being less risk with this duo than the likes of Davies and Phillips.
If he is able to make the impression required, Kabak could then serve as a shrewd long-term acquisition for Liverpool, as another 20-year-old with his level of potential and experience will be hard to find for the low fee of £18 million.