James Pearce and additional contributors: Raphael Honigstein, Simon Hughes, Caoimhe O’Neill, Tom Worville
The more Jürgen Klopp heard about Ozan Kabak, the more he was enamoured with the prospect of working with him.
There was a ringing endorsement from David Wagner, the Turkey international centre-back’s manager at Schalke until last September. Klopp also spoke with close friend Christian Heidel, the former Schalke sporting director whom he knows well from their days together at Mainz. Another glowing reference was provided by Sven Mislintat, the ex-Borussia Dortmund chief scout and current Stuttgart sporting director.
Klopp had heard enough to convince him that Liverpool should push ahead with securing the 20-year-old’s services on loan for the rest of the season with an option to buy this summer.
“I told Jürgen that he’s a top lad,” Arsenal’s former head of recruitment Mislintat tells The Athletic. “Top mentality, top character, top aggression. He’s a (Dejan) Lovren-type player. Very good in the air, both defensively and in the opposition box.
“He played his best stuff for us (at Stuttgart). He hasn’t been able to show how good he is at Schalke. He still needs to learn but he has all the skills for Klopp to make a success of him.”
Kabak has not enjoyed the best season at Schalke (Photo: Ralf Treese/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
When Liverpool first spoke with intermediaries representing Kabak in November they were quoted a price of around £25 million. After the initial discussions, it didn’t go any further. Liverpool were not keen to do business at that price but continued to watch his development closely. Interest was only revived in the closing stages of the January window when it became clear that Kabak could be signed on much more favourable terms.
During discussions on Monday, Schalke tried to negotiate an obligation to buy following the completion of a loan this season. However, Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards warned that the Premier League champions were prepared to walk away unless there was just an option rather than a firm commitment to make the deal permanent.
Knowing the player idolises Virgil van Dijk and had his heart set on moving to Anfield, Schalke reluctantly agreed. Liverpool will pay a loan fee of £1 million with a further £500,000 to potentially follow depending on the number of appearances he makes.
Liverpool also have the option to buy Kabak for £18 million plus add-ons in June, which gives Klopp and his staff the chance to work closely with him for the next four months to establish whether he’s as good as the recommendations suggest.
“It’s try before you buy basically,” one senior Anfield source tells The Athletic.
The transfer was dependent on Schalke signing Shkodran Mustafi from Arsenal as a replacement, and once that went through Liverpool had their man. Kabak had already undergone a medical in Germany in order to save time ahead of Monday’s 11pm GMT deadline.
It completed the most frenetic deadline day for the club since they sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea and bought Andy Carroll from Newcastle United a decade ago.
Liverpool had earlier completed the £1.6 million signing of Ben Davies from Preston North End. That deal involves a payment of £500,000 up front with the rest in add-ons related to appearances and team achievements he contributes to.
There is also an England appearance clause, while Preston negotiated a 20 per cent sell-on clause on any profit Liverpool make on Davies in the future. Liverpool regard Davies as a “Ragnar Klavan-type signing”, the Estonia international who spent two seasons at Anfield after arriving from Augsburg before leaving in 2018.
In a surprise late move on deadline day, Liverpool also decided to sanction the departure of Takumi Minamino on loan to Southampton for the rest of the season. Saints, who will pay a £500,000 loan fee, wanted an option to buy the Japan international this summer but that was rejected as Klopp still sees a future for him at Anfield.
Minamino has only started two Premier League matches for Liverpool this season and Klopp believes he will benefit from playing regular first-team football. Saints are seen as a good fit given Ralph Hasenhuttl’s style of football.
In recent years, Edwards and Klopp have prided themselves on getting their business done early but an unprecedented injury crisis prompted a late push for reinforcements.
Liverpool had initially intended to avoid going down the road of short-term fixes and hoped to wait until the summer before dipping into the market. However, their position changed dramatically last week when owners Fenway Sports Group gave the green light for signings to be made.
A season-ending ankle injury suffered by Joel Matip against Tottenham, following the long-term absences of Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, prompted a rethink. Matip is set to undergo surgery after a specialist confirmed Liverpool’s worst fears. They are also currently without Fabinho, who has been filling in as a makeshift centre-back.
Edwards made numerous enquiries about centre-backs across Europe, including Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car. Samuel Umtiti was also briefly considered but the player was reluctant to leave Barcelona.
Born in Ankara in Turkey, Kabak joined Galatasaray’s academy at the age of 11. He went on to make 14 senior league appearances before moving to Germany to sign for Stuttgart in January 2019. Michael Reschke was the club’s head of sport, who beat off competition from Juventus, among others, to sign Kabak.
“Kabak popped up in our scouting system because he was playing at a high level at an early age,” Reschke tells The Athletic. “I went to see him play in Galatasaray’s Champions League game against Porto in Istanbul. He was up against Moussa Marega, a real test, but he held his own.
“I told him: ‘You know what happened in the 23rd minute?’ He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“I said: ‘You made a mistake. That was one of the three mistakes you made in the game. One led to a goal for Porto’. He and his agent looked at me, thinking, ‘Why is he telling me that?’
“I said: ‘But you know what really mattered? You picked yourself up and just kept playing your game, you didn’t let it faze you and played really well’.
“Ozan was a top pro. Well-educated, polite, strong charisma, really intelligent. He’s the type of defender who looks for the duel, he defends on the front foot, always looking to get to the ball first.
“You’ll never see him drop off unless he absolutely has to. We didn’t have a good second half of the season in 2018-19 and were relegated but that had little to do with Ozan, he was outstanding.
Kabak was ‘outstanding’ for Stuttgart in 2018-19 (Photo: City-Press via Getty Images)
“He was voted Bundesliga rookie of the season for his solid performances. His mentality and commitment were fantastic. He played with a broken toe and, in the relegation play-off against Union, with a broken nose, still heading balls. He’s like that.”
By the summer of 2019, Reschke had become technical director at Schalke and he soon signed Kabak for a second time.
“I knew he had a release clause of €15 (£13.2) million in his contract. Bayern were also interested but we pushed harder and he once again chose the club that would give him game time to help his development,” he reveals.
“He was very good that first season. Milan wanted to buy him in the summer. They offered €20 (£17.7) million. Schalke said no. They promised him he would become an even better player and that they were going places. I think he felt that the club couldn’t keep that promise and was affected by that.”
Kabak has found life tough this season as part of a struggling team who are rooted to the foot of the table. He has played in 14 of Schalke’s 19 league games. He was hit with a five-match ban and a €15,000 (£13,200) fine in September after spitting on Werder Bremen’s Lugwig Augustinsson. Kabak insisted it was accidental and issued a swift apology following the game.
Reschke believes the toils of cash-strapped Schalke have taken a toll on Kabak and he expects him to be energised by the move to Anfield.
“He hasn’t quite been himself lately. Him spitting at an opponent was completely out of character for him,” he says.
“There was no way Schalke could stop him from going to Liverpool now. If they had refused him a big transfer for a second time, they would have killed him as a player. They knew they had to let him go now.
“David Wagner would have given him a glowing report. He’s not super fast, but he’s very strong and resilient, switched on. He can play football, he wants to win every ball and he’s great in the air.
“I’d be surprised if he didn’t score a couple of goals from set pieces. He will benefit from a bit of guidance by more experienced players and from Klopp, who tends to improve every player.
“We shouldn’t forget that he’s still young but getting him in on an initial loan is a superb deal for Liverpool. He will try absolutely everything to make it a permanent deal. I’m pretty sure he’ll make it. He’s got the quality to become an international top-class centre-back.”
Wagner has described Kabak as “one of the most talented defenders of his age in Europe”. However, Andreas Ernst, the Schalke reporter for Funke Mediengruppe, says the challenge for Klopp is to restore the centre-back’s self-belief.
“Ozan is a technically and physically strong defender with pace,” he says. “He played outstandingly in the 2019-20 season. Schalke thought they could sell him for €45 (£39.
million in the summer of 2021.
“For all his talent, Ozan hasn’t been in his best form for weeks. It is better for him not to have to carry the defensive burden on his shoulder alone. His performances are not yet consistent enough. Sometimes he plays too risky. Sometimes he’s too undisciplined in games. One thing is clear: he comes to Liverpool without confidence.
“Schalke fans had already come to terms with the fact that Ozan would leave in the summer at the latest. That’s why they’re not sad. Schalke has big financial problems and Ozan is ‘Tafelsilber’. That means he is one of the few players who can bring in a high transfer income. He’s still only 20 and with a lot of development ahead.”
Kabak’s tough time in Germany this season can be seen in his smarterscout statistics (a site which gives detailed analytics on players all over the world, producing a score between 0-99). His figures for defensive intensity and impact have regressed a fair amount. This, however, is likely due to Schalke as a team overall having an awful season, conceding the second most xG (expected goals) per 90 per Statsbomb via fbref.
That’s a huge drop from last season where they ranked 67th in Europe out of 98 top-flight teams, sandwiched between Crystal Palace and Southampton. Kabak has shown in the past he’s capable of playing in a decent back line so the team stats shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of him being a bad defender despite his struggles this season.
His tendency to pass forward progressively (i.e. moving the ball forward by 10m+ towards the opponent’s goal) has regressed slightly too, with Kabak looking to be a bit safer on the ball and retaining possession at slightly higher levels than last season.
Carrying-wise, he’s still maintained his tendency to be confident in possession, either looking to take a player on at the back or carry the ball upfield. In fact, per Statsbomb via fbref, his 1.67 dribble attempts per 90 are surpassed only by Dortmund’s Emre Can and Crotone’s Giuseppe Cuomo when either have played at centre-back.
Last season he excelled at being a “do a bit of everything” defender. He scored three goals from set pieces in 2019-20 too, a useful skill for Liverpool to take advantage of.
Per smarterscout, Kabak appears to have regressed quite a lot when tackling one-on-one. Last season his tackling rating was 78/99, which has now dropped to 17/99. This rating reflects the difficulty of each duel a defender enters, penalising them from getting beaten by weak dribblers, and rewarding them from tackling those who are tough to get the ball off.
Kabak has come on leaps and bounds in the air in open play though, near Van Dijk and Matip levels. The most stylistically similar player to him this season is Adam Webster at Brighton. Think someone who’s happy to stride forward and can progress play but his role means he’s relatively quiet defensively. Interestingly, given his links to this deal, Kabak’s stats in 2019-20 are most stylistically similar to Mustafi in 2018-19.
Kabak already has a prized possession connecting him with Liverpool. Two years ago he proudly posted on social media a photo of him holding up a shirt signed by Van Dijk. The gift had been sorted out by his friend Omer Bayram, a team-mate of Kabak’s at Galatasaray and later with the Turkish national team. Bayram and Van Dijk go way back. They were both born in Breda, Holland within 19 days of one another. Van Dijk used to go round to Bayram’s house as a kid and liked his mum’s cooking.
Kabak made his first start in the Champions League for Galatasaray because of an injury to the club’s star defender Serdar Aziz. Now, another injury crisis is giving him a shot to play at Liverpool.
Back in his homeland, Kabak is regarded as a rising star, having made seven senior international appearances. Alp Ulagay, a Turkish journalist for Futbol Arena, says: “He is probably the best homegrown player of Galatasaray’s academy for the last five seasons. He decided to try his chance elsewhere and Galatasaray needed some money.
“What surprises me about him is his strength. He’s quick as well. He’s very mature both physically and mentally. He’s good aerially but still very young for a centre-back. Turkey has a new generation of great centre-backs: Caglar Soyuncu at Leicester, Merih Demiral at Juventus, Kaan Ayhan at Sassuolo.
“Turkish fans will be very happy to see Ozan play for Liverpool, one of the world’s best teams and the English champions. It should be a great chance for him to improve his career and to become one of Europe’s best centre-backs.
“Before he moved to Germany he started to learn English. So when he went to Germany at first he used English then started to learn German. So he will have a basic knowledge of English already.”
Some have questioned the wisdom of Liverpool signing a young centre-back who has been part of the Bundesliga’s most porous back line this season to help in their pursuit of glory. However, that ignores the fact that Klopp plucked Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Xherdan Shaqiri from relegated Premier League clubs. Each of them are now Champions League and Premier League winners. It’s just a question of how quickly Klopp can get Kabak up to speed.
Liverpool’s recruitment staff look upon Kabak in a similar way to Robertson prior to his arrival from Hull City for £8 million in 2017. The detailed scouting reports on Kabak fluctuated, just like they did for Robertson. However, much of that Liverpool put down to being part of a club in crisis. Kabak has played for four different managers already this season. They believe he was dragged down by the malaise around him and struggled to perform due to a loss of confidence. Edwards and Klopp believe he will thrive in a more stable and positive environment.
Kabak and Davies aren’t big-money moves, they aren’t booming statements of ambition. But in difficult circumstances, Liverpool have landed two centre-backs for an initial outlay of just £1.5 million combined.
They are both low-risk options. Liverpool’s season rests to a large degree on them being high reward.