Good news for Ozan Kabak: it cannot get much worse than this | Liverpool


Poor Ozan Kabak. He is only 20, but he has already become a player to whom bad things happen. Most of his career has been spent in failing sides, but that can happen to a young player on the rise. In that context, a Merseyside derby was an opportunity to really make his mark. Three minutes in, it had already begun to go wrong.

The wind made it difficult. His initial clearing header did not get much distance, but that was understandable in the conditions. The problem was then his apparent lack of awareness as Richarlison got behind him. The defender’s body shape meant there was no chance for him to get back as James Rodríguez slipped the ball through for Richarlison to score. Five minutes later, Kabak misjudged a long pass in the wind and Richarlison nearly got in behind him again. That would be a recurring pattern.

A needless foul on Séamus Coleman just before half-time brought a third yellow card in three Liverpool appearances, to go with seven for Schalke and two for Turkey this season. Even after half-time as Liverpool controlled possession, Kabak stepped up late in a failed attempt to play Richarlison offside as he burst into the box. This was not a convincing display.

“I’m physically strong and a ball-playing centre-back,” Kazak said on his arrival at Anfield. “I’m good in the air. Sometimes I can score.” Which seems a reasonable enough assessment. The doubt is his capacity to play as far up the field as Liverpool demand. Jamie Vardy is probably the best player in the Premier League at taking advantage of a malfunctioning high defensive line and so represented a test as stern as they come on debut. Leipzig threatened to get in behind him last Tuesday without ever quite doing so.

Here, he might have preferred to be facing the physical challenge of Dominic Calvert-Lewin rather than the more mercurial threat of Richarlison. As it was, Calvert‑Lewin, restricted by his hamstring, did not arrive until just after the hour. In that, perhaps, there was again a sense that fortune was against Kabak.

This was the 63rd league start of his career. He had won 11 of the previous 62 and had been on the winning side in one of the previous 27. He was relegated with his first German side, Stuttgart, while his second, Schalke 04, will surely be relegated this season having come within one game of the Bundesliga record for successive games without a victory. Kabak may turn out to be a very good centre-back, but it’s fair to say that he has not been a lucky one.

Still, he might have allowed himself to think: new club, new start. So what happens last week? He was cleaned out by Alisson, allowing Vardy in to score. Jürgen Klopp seemed to suggest a new element in the rearguard had led to misunderstanding but there was no audible shout from the goalkeeper. At least there was victory against RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Tuesday, Kabak’s second clean sheet in a club game since Schalke’s goalless draw away to Hertha Berlin at the end of January 2020.

Ideally, a new player would arrive in the summer, be given time to learn the system and understand the mechanics of the press, to build a relationship with his teammates. Kabak, though, after being spared the defeat to Manchester City has been thrust into the maelstrom, partnering neither the player he revered as he broke through at Galatasaray, Virgil van Dijk, nor even a central defender, but Jordan Henderson who, for all his application and promise, is learning the position himself.

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In terms of long-term prospects, being a Liverpool central defender this season ranks alongside opening Tutankhamun’s tomb or being a drummer in Spinal Tap. Before half an hour had been played, Henderson had become the latest to succumb and Nat Phillips came on, forcing Kabak to become the left-sided centre-back in Liverpool’s 18th defensive pairing of the season. None has lasted three successive games.

The good news for Kabak is that it cannot get much harder than this. Before yesterday, he had been on the winning side eight times in the past three seasons. He is not used to success and now he is trying to adapt to a new system in a new league in a team that has begun to doubt itself. Endure, carry on, fail better and hope that he will emerge from the experience not broken but case-hardened.



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