Weekend Previews

On Liverpool’s Signing of Ozan Kabak

And Ben Davies, but mainly Ozan Kabak…

Liverpool signings are like London buses. You wait forever for one to show up and two show up at the same time.

The Reds’ center back crisis has been well-known for quite a while now, and an additional season-ending injury to Joel Matip has only made it substantially worse. After a month of everyone saying Liverpool need to sign a center back, it appears they have signed two on Deadline Day. Like London buses.

Schalke’s Ozan Kabak joins the reigning English champions on loan with an option to buy of somewhere in the range of €20-30 million, including add-ons. The Reds also beat Scottish side Celtic to the signing of Preston North End’s 25 year old center back Ben Davies, sealing the deal for around £500 thousand with an additional £1.5 million in add-ons. Two center backs that will come in and greatly relieve the pressure on the Liverpool back line, likely reducing the need for Jürgen Klopp to rely on youngsters Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams in pressure situations.

Ozan Kabak is an interesting deal. The 20 year old Turk has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence, coming through at Galatasaray and quickly being snapped up by VfB Stuttgart less than a year after his professional debut. After an impressive six months with Stuttgart, he was on the move again, this time to Schalke. His first season with Schalke was very good, but his form tailed off near the end of the season, seemingly coinciding with Schalke’s disastrous run of form following the restart of the Bundesliga season. This season has not been better. He really has not played well at all this season and, being part of by far the worst defense in the Bundesliga, it would not really be fair to call him a top player at this point.

But the potential is definitely there, and that is likely what attracted Liverpool’s attention. This is what brought other clubs to ask about Kabak in the summer, it is why he was days away from joining AC Milan before the summer window closed. Kabak is still only 20, and there is already quite a bit about his game to like. He is a player that is very confident on the ball, able to dribble out with the ball or make progressive passes. He is comfortable playing in either the left or right center back position. He is also very good in the air, despite not being the same towering presence as a Virgil van Dijk-type center back, for example. He wins a solid amount of his aerial defensive duels, and he is also a goal-scoring threat from indirect free kicks and corners. He possesses the traits that people look for when looking for top modern center backs, and he is only 20. I know I have said “he is only 20” quite a bit, but that is still incredibly young. Kabak has grown into quite a solid player fairly quickly, and he still has plenty of time to grow into his full potential.

There are some issues that have been exposed at Schalke. His positional sense is not always spot on, leaving much to do for his defensive partners. He is also prone to error, either positionally/in defending or with the ball at his feet. These weaknesses have been emphasized greatly by the fact that he plays in a very bad team, one that has conceded 49 goals through 19 games this season and that seems destined for relegation. But this is not the end of the world, as it is natural for young players to have the odd mistake in them. Playing in such an overwhelmingly negative and toxic situation might not be the best for his development, so a move to Liverpool could help Kabak grow into a quality player. He will have the direction of a very good manager and be in a team with several world-class talents, where he can learn in an atmosphere that might be more forgiving than Schalke.

Although, he will likely be asked to be an immediate first team starter upon arrival. With season-ending injuries to van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip, Kabak becomes Liverpool’s best natural healthy center back from his first minutes on Merseyside. With another injury to Fabinho, which ruled him out of Liverpool’s win over West Ham, it is very possible we see Kabak and Davies start together in their first game for the club. That is quite a bit of pressure, he might not be ready for this step up. However, it is easy to forget that Liverpool’s scouting department are no slouches, and, while they have slipped up with some signings (Naby Keïta, Takumi Minamino), they usually get more right than wrong. There is a reason they wanted Kabak, and I believe Klopp will be forgiving with the young Turk during this trial by fire.

Despite the risks, there is potential bonuses for Kabak to make this move now. Yes, he is going to be under quite a bit of pressure playing for Liverpool, but if he succeeds in this position, then he is immediately thrusted into the discussion to be on the plane for Turkey when they go to the Euros this summer. Despite his rapid rise, he has already played seven times for his country. He seems to be behind Çaglar Söyüncü and Merih Demiral in the pecking order, but a strong four months for Liverpool at least puts him in the selection conversation in a way that he may have never reached in this short time period had he remained at Schalke. Should he make it to the Euros and even play in the competition for Turkey, then his stature as a player grows even more. The meteoric rise only becomes more massive. It is quite a gamble to take on yourself, but the positives to this move do rationalize the “thrown in the deep end” risks that it brings.

Long-term, Kabak will be used as competition for that second center back position. Van Dijk, when he is fit, is Liverpool’s left center back without any question or doubt. The right center back was thought to be a lock for Joe Gomez, and it still might be, but Kabak provides serious long-term competition for that place. Klopp will hope that iron sharpens iron in this case, the competition improving both Gomez and Kabak to provide them the perfect center back partner for van Dijk. It is a move that could potentially be very shrewd by Liverpool, especially given how low his buy option fee is. The potential to have two high-potential center backs being able to partner van Dijk is tantalizing, and having both of them playing together when the Dutchman eventually leaves Merseyside or calls it a career is even better.

Now, from a Schalke perspective, people might think it is idiotic for the club to offload one of their better players when they are in a relegation fight. They might say it is even more idiotic for the club to let go of one of their best young assets, especially in a position like center back where there are few top young prospects, for a very cheap fee. And both people would be right. However, I am going to try and draw some logic for this. Let us be honest, Schalke are likely going down. There is still a lot of football left to be played, yes, but they are terrible. It is very hard to see a reality where they stay in the Bundesliga, even if Kabak had stayed. Moving Kabak now is less than ideal, but it is possible that they would get more in return now instead of selling in the summer, when their second division status would reduce their bargaining leverage even further. It might not be much for a young player with high potential, but the €20-30 million return still is more than they likely would have gotten had they sold the Turk next summer. It is a sad state of affairs. Schalke are a big club, and seeing their collapse at this rate is sad for football fans (though I imagine Dortmund fans are enjoying it). There will likely be similar moves away from Gelsenkirchen coming in the summer for the likes of Amine Harit and Suat Serdar. It is a sad state of affairs.

And lastly, a quick word on Ben Davies. On paper, this seems a weird signing. The 25 year old Englishman has been sort of a loan journeyman for most of his still fairly young career, going on loan five times before settling in the first team at Preston in 2017. Admittedly, he was very good at Preston, winning the club’s Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year awards in consecutive seasons. I have admittedly hardly ever seen him play, but from my observations, he never struck me as anything more than a pretty good Championship-level center back. Again, Liverpool’s scouts are usually smarter than I am, and it is hard to dispute their track record, but this seems to be a bit of a panic purchase. If the rumors are to be believed, Liverpool made enquiries into quite a few center backs across England and across Europe during the final few days of this window, and it is possible that Kabak and Davies were the two they could get deals across the line for.

Despite him being the main target or not, Davies will get significant time at Liverpool immediately, especially if Fabinho is out for an extended period of time, so we will see what the man is made of. I do not, however, see Davies having a long-term future at Liverpool. He has all the looks of an ideal stopgap player, but once van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip come back from injury, Davies becomes the fifth choice center back at best. With Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge confirming competition from Liverpool for Bayern target Dayot Upamecano, it is possible that the barriers between Davies and the Liverpool first team become even greater after the summer window. Even then, would the club want to give him opportunities over the likes of Nat Phillips or Rhys Williams or Sepp van den Berg or any of the young players that Liverpool have invested in? It is a tough deal for the guy, but I do not see him as a Liverpool player a year from now. This could be a good deal for him, though. He has six months to show his talent. If he performs well, it is very possible he can get a move to another Premier League team where he could start regularly at a high level. This could be something that dramatically changes the course of Davies’ career, and I do not think Liverpool would throw their lot behind a slouch. It will be interesting to see how he performs.

You can relax now, Liverpool fans, you have signed some center backs. The injury crisis at the back has a remedy. This should help the Reds get their season back on track and return to title contention, though it may be too late to catch Manchester City. Even then, the club is set for next season with a young talent in Ozan Kabak to challenge for that second center back spot. Ben Davies is an interesting move, but who knows? Maybe he is a great player who now gets the chance to shine? Only time will tell.

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