LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, March 4, 2021: Liverpool's Ozan Kabak during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Ozan Kabak deserves credit as a new defensive core forms at Liverpool

While Nat Phillips and Fabinho have been rightly lauded as Liverpool got back to winning ways against RB Leipzig, Ozan Kabak is deserving of similar praise for his role.

As the Reds wheeled away from a 4-0 aggregate victory over Leipzig and into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the club’s official Twitter account polled fans on their Man of the Match.

The candidates were Phillips, Fabinho, Thiago and Mohamed Salah, and all were valid given their contributions in Budapest.

Phillips, on his Champions League debut, dealt ably with the aerial threat of Yussuf Poulsen, Fabinho dominated on his return to the anchor role, in turn allowing Thiago to express himself, while Salah opened the scoring with a brilliant goal.

It was the debutant, wearing the No. 47 shirt, who was bestowed the honour, with Phillips receiving 41.4 percent of the vote to be named Liverpool’s standout performer.

After the game, Jurgen Klopp lavished praise on his “monster” at the back, rightly reflecting that “a few years ago nobody would have thought that [he would be in this position].”

A first outing in the Champions League brought Phillips up to 10 appearances for the season, and 11 in total for the Liverpool first team, having come close to joining Swansea on loan at the end of the summer transfer window.

He produced an impressive display which was duly lapped up by BT Sport commentators Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman, who were particularly enthralled by his willingness to put his head where many players wouldn’t put their feet.

Alongside Phillips, however, Kabak made his sixth start for the club to considerably less fanfare, despite arguably putting together a more assured performance at the heart of Liverpool’s back line.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (R) celebrates with team-mate Ozan Kabak after scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. (Pic by Propaganda)

Kabak’s omission from an arbitrary Man of the Match poll is no cause for controversy, especially given the level of output across the board.

But as he finds himself mentioned as part of a new defensive core along with Phillips and Fabinho, it is only right he receives a similar level of recognition.

It has undoubtedly been a difficult start to life on Merseyside for the young Turk, who began well on his debut against Leicester only to be caught up in a shambolic collapse at the King Power.

There were errors on his follow-up Premier League outing in the Merseyside derby, while the Reds’ miserable form overall at domestic level has not cast a positive light on his efforts.

His display against Leipzig, though, highlighted an improvement in his game that can be expected given his time with the club is still in its infancy.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Liverpool's Ozan Kabak (R) and RB Leipzig's Yussuf Poulsen during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and RB Leipzig at the Puskás Aréna. Liverpool won 2-0, 4-0 on aggregate. (Pic by Propaganda)

Kabak operated as sweeper to Phillips’ more front-footed stopper, dropping deeper than his centre-back partner to mop up loose balls and utilise his speed to snuff out danger, while also getting stuck in when required.

Only Phillips (five) made more clearances than Kabak (two); only Fabinho and Salah (both three) made more interceptions (two); only Thiago (79%) and Gini Wijnaldum (87.2%) recorded a higher pass accuracy (77.1%).

There was a composure to his play as he and Phillips kept things simple, no doubt aided by the shielding presence of Fabinho, allowing Liverpool to recycle possession comfortably under pressure from Leipzig’s well-drilled forward line.

He complemented those around him perfectly, and that is possibly the biggest compliment Kabak could be paid after only the sixth Champions League appearance of his career.

That he hasn’t been spotlighted in the same way Phillips and Fabinho have can be attributed, at least partly, due to the narrative of the occasion – he wasn’t the underdog academy product making his European debut, nor the unexpected utility man restored to his favoured role.

Instead, it seems almost as if Kabak has been forgotten to an extent, or perhaps already consigned to the ‘reject’ list, due to perceptions borne out of the mistakes of his first forays into English football.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 13, 2021: Liverpool's Ozan Kabak (L) and captain Jordan Henderson during the FA Premier League match between Leicester City FC and Liverpool FC at the King Power Stadium. (Pic by Propaganda)

It should not be forgotten, therefore, that Kabak is only 20, having moved from a struggling Bundesliga club to a struggling Premier League club, mid-season, surrounded by a new and everchanging band of team-mates and, crucially, not even operating on his natural right side.

Phillips is the third different centre-back to partner Kabak since he made the move from Schalke to Liverpool, and neither he, Fabinho nor Jordan Henderson have the experience required to guide the No. 19 through games.

Maybe the lack of scrutiny suits Kabak, as a precocious young defender starting regularly for a new club, but it is only fair to afford him equal praise to his Champions League co-star.

This was not his first impressive performance, either, and in the context of Liverpool’s ongoing malaise, it is worth pointing out that of his six appearances so far, Kabak has helped keep three clean sheets.

“We all want Fab on the six, that’s how it is,” Klopp said after the Reds’ victory over Leipzig. “Tonight he played there and the two centre-halves played an incredible game, to be honest.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, March 4, 2021: Liverpool's Ozan Kabak during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. Chelsea won 1-0 condemning Liverpool to their fifth consecutive home defeat for the first time in the club’s history. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The manager appears genuinely convinced by his new defensive trio, and the hope is that Fabinho is now retained in the deep-lying role in midfield as Phillips and Kabak are trusted to build on their partnership at centre-back.

It is far from ideal, and the improving fitness of Virgil van Dijk remains a glimmer of hope for the final weeks of the campaign, but it is no longer a bona fide disaster.

Kabak’s own quiet progress has assisted in a turning of the tide, and the youngest player in Klopp’s starting lineup in Budapest by a year-and-a-half deserves credit for doing so.