Liverpool transfer news: Reds sign Ozan Kabak - 'The Turkish Wall' who idolises Virgil van Dijk
After initially trying to sign him in the summer Liverpool have finally got their man with Ozan Kabak poised to join the Reds on loan from Schalke. Pete Sharland looks at Kabak as a player, his journey and how he might end up helping Liverpool both this season and in the future.
It's hardly a surprise that Liverpool have been active on deadline day. The Premier League champions are without Virgil van Dijk for the season, with Joe Gomez a long-term absentee and Joel Matip injury prone.
They targeted two defenders - and got two defenders. The first was Preston North End’s Ben Davies who, per Eurosport’s Insider Dean Jones, could well go out on loan after Liverpool’s defensive unit are back to full fitness. The other is Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, who is expected to go straight into the first-team squad having proven himself in the Bundesliga.
Kabak, who is still just 20, came through the youth system at Galatasaray, making his debut at 18, and joined Stuttgart less than a year later in the 2019 winter transfer window. That year he was named Rookie of the Season in the Bundesliga, despite playing just half the season.
Ozan Kabak of FC Schalke 04 looks on during the pre-season friendly match between FC Schalke 04 and Aris Thessaloniki at Stadion Kematen on August 28, 2020 in Kematen in Tirol
Image credit: Getty Images
His performances were such that he was on the move again, this time to Schalke just six months after joining Stuttgart. At the Veltins-Arena, he has blossomed into one of the best young central defenders in Europe, nicknamed ‘The Turkish Wall’ in various scouting circles according to James Pearce of The Athletic.
Initially seen as a developmental prospect, Kabak was thrown in at the deep end at Schalke due to injuries. He ended up starting in 21 Bundesliga games and came off the bench in a further five. The Turkish international scored a towering header during his first start for the club - a 3-2 win over Augsburg - and ended the season with three goals.
By Kabak’s own admission he sees his strengths in the physical department.
“I would say my heading ability is good, because I scored a lot with my head before, at Galatasaray,” Kabak told the Bundesliga website last year.
I have good physicality, like pace and jumping.
However, Kabak is far more than fast and strong. This season in the Bundesliga he has completed 87.9% of his passes. While that's worse than Fabinho, Van Dijk and Gomez but better than Matip, it’s important to frame it around the context of Schalke being bottom of the table in Germany.
One of the other areas where Kabak is perhaps too modest is his mentality. Throughout his career coaches and team-mates have constantly remarked on his maturity. How he wants to learn and how he reads the game and leads on the pitch. These are the sort of rare, intangible qualities that scouts and managers crave when they’re watching players.
Here’s former Aston Villa midfielder and Stuttgart director of football Thomas Hitzlsperger on the youngster that his club had for just a few months:
“It’s incredible how worldy-wise he is for his age. It’s astonishing. I see him every day and am amazed at how mature he is.
Ozan Kabak (l.) im Duell mit Robert Lewandowski
Image credit: Getty Images
He wants to know everything; he wants to learn German right away and understand everything. That’s the kind of attitude we need. He’s already a role model, despite his age.
Tobias Hlusiak of Eurosport Germany calls Kabak a “calm” defender and adding that although he is a little raw “he has a lot of talent.”
Although Hlusiak doesn’t like to make comparisons, when pushed he says: “I would take a reach here and compare him to a young Mats Hummels, just considering his overall talent level and ability to score from set-pieces. [I am] talking about the year 2009, when Mats was still fast…”
As far as Kabak is concerned he sees Van Dijk as an idol, telling the Bundesliga website:
My personal aim is to become a top defender in maybe two or three years, like Virgil van Dijk. He's my idol, I really like him. I like his style and how he plays, so I can say he's my football idol."
Of course the one red flag on Kabak is an incident from September 2020, when he was suspended for five-matches for spitting at Werder Bremen defender Ludwig Augustinsson.
Kabak insisted that it was an “accident,” saying “the TV angle gives a deceptive view of the incident,” and he “never did that before and won’t do it in the future.” Hlusiak adds “that incident has been a huge shock, even to himself. Nothing crucial happened since. In fact, it is the only time he has ever been sent off and I wouldn’t consider him a dirty player at all.”
The incident was particularly controversial given the context of the pandemic. However, as Hlusiak points out that is very much a singular blot on Kabak’s copybook.
On the pitch Kabak is an exceptional talent and it is understandable why Liverpool, along with a host of other European giants, have been tracking him for some time. Turkey are on the cusp of a real golden generation, with Kabak at its heart; he captained the U17s at the European Championships in 2017 and already has seven caps for the senior team to his name.
Kabak suits Liverpool’s situation perfectly: he’s good enough to start immediately with plenty of room to develop. Who knows, perhaps next season he will be the starting centre-back for Liverpool alongside his idol…