When Naby Keita first rocked up to Melwood in the summer of 2018, with the famous number 8 already emblazoned on the back of his Liverpool jersey, it’s safe to say that expectations were high.
After all, this was a player that Liverpool had been monitoring for years – with three transfer windows passing since his name was first linked with the famous red. A 60 million Euro fee was eventually agreed with his former employee’s, RB Leipzig, but not before a seemingly endless transfer saga had enthused an expectant fanbase. With the speculation, came the hype – as surely Jurgen Klopp’s desire to land the tricky Guinean came from a steadfast belief in the youngster’s ability.
The enthusiasm swelled, he was the creative midfielder than Liverpool were in dire need of, with some fans describing the club’s new number 8 as a truly generational player. Few signings in recent years, with the obvious exception of Virgil van Dijk, have arrived with such lofty expectations from the onset. As it happens, when Naby Keita did finally don the red of Liverpool, he got off to a modest, but respectable start, featuring in a 4-0 home win against West Ham in August 2018. Subsequent matches would also give fans a glimpse of what to expect from the midfield maestro, as a clip of Keita skinning Andros Townsend with a divine piece of skill was https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“>circulated with much enthusiasm on social media after Liverpool’s away win at Palace. So then, why did the next few months go so wrong, for the player that Jurgen Klopp tried so desperately to sign?
Simply put, part of Keita’s slow-burn at Liverpool is an intentional strategy from Klopp and the club. When you asses many of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool signings, what becomes clear immediately is that almost all of them are eased into the team gradually. Only Virgil Van Dijk became an immediate regular – such was his obvious quality in comparison to his peers. Keita, however, was presented with an all together trickier task. Not only did he have to overhaul midfield custodians like Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum, but he also had to adapt to Klopp’s demanding, and very specific midfield requirements. Keita’s natural game is based around explosive dribbles, high energy and forward passing – all were going to have to be tweaked in order to work in Klopp’s ever-evolving system. This was no longer the Liverpool of old, where all-out gegenpressing, alongside fluid movement, was at the epicentre of the German’s game plan. On the contrary, Liverpool at this time were becoming altogether more controlled, learning subtlety, alongside the frenetic, attacking tactics that defined his first few years on Merseyside. His end goal was to create the kind of side we see today – still an attacking marvel at their best, but now blessed with a coherent game plan, able to keep clean sheets, and eke out close, hard-fought wins. It’s what turns contenders into champions – killer instinct.
What Keita seems to a victim of then, is Klopp’s managerial evolution. At the time that Liverpool first registered an interest in the Guinean, it was still the Liverpool of old, a team that the 24-year-old would have thrived in from the start. But after Champions League agony in the 2018 final, as well the exit of gegenpressing master Zeljko Buvac, suddenly, a different approach was needed. And with that, Keita would be required to learn a whole new way of playing the game, where his primary assets would need to be somewhat finessed.
The rest of season saw Keita showcase odd moments of quality, including a goal after just five minutes against Porto in the Champions League. Generally, however, it was somewhat of a struggle for Keita to get to grips with his newly developed role, while also battling for a starting birth against the likes of Henderson and Wijnaldum. Lately however, we’ve seen signs that things are beginning to change. Since Fabinho’s injury in early December, Liverpool’s more fringe midfielders have found game time easier to come by. Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana have all seen their opportunities increase of late, with Naby, arguably, seizing his chance the most.
Last season, the Guinean started 16 Premier League games for Liverpool, a frustrating debut campaign that yielded just two goals and a single assist. Further, his average Whoscored rating that season, of 6.74, reflects how Keita struggled to impose himself on games. In Europe, success was slightly easier to come by, as he achieved a marginally better Whoscored rating on 6.94, while also scoring a crucial early goal in the clubs Quarter Final tie at home to Porto. This year, however, it’s been a very different story. Things got off to a slow start, with Naby suffering from yet another injury set back (certainly a factor in his initial struggle at the club). But then came Fabinho’s injury, which coincided with Keita’s welcomed return from his early-season knock. He grabbed his opportunity with both hands, performing superbly away in Genk, before a goalscoring, Man of the Match winning display away at Bournemouth. The game on the South Coast, which the reds won 3-0, was very much a coming of age moment for Keita in the Premier League. He’d had similarly fine games in Europe, but this was a truly dominant performance, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since his days back in Germany, for RB Leipzig. The Naby of old was back – but this time, with new elements to his game.
Its ironic that Keita’s recent form hasn’t actually improved his defensive output – the one area that fans grew frustrated over when he first signed for Liverpool. Critics and fans alike surely expected that with time, Klopp would mould Naby into the kind of functional, hardworking defensive player that he so seems to desire at the club. And yet, the stats show that the opposite is in fact true. Per 90, Keita is making less than half the number of interceptions for Liverpool in comparison to his Leipzig days. In the 2016/17 season, he made 2.6 interceptions per game in the league, compared to just 0.5 so far this campaign. Similarly, his tackling figures have also dropped with time, completing just 1.4 per 90 this season, a significant drop on his career-high of 2.6 in the 2016/17 season. The reason? Most would put it down to his newfound role at Liverpool, in which he is often the most unrestricted of the side’s midfield trio. With Fabinho primarily responsible for breaking up play, Keita is instead afforded more freedom to drift forward in search of space. Back in his Leipzig days, Naby was often tasked with a greater defensive load, playing as one of two midfielders in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s famed 4-2-2-2 formation. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that his output has dropped somewhat in this regard.
With that being said, a similarly curious change has occurred in the players offensive output, one that would appear to suggest regression, rather than progress. Over the past two seasons, Keita’s number of dribbles per 90 have also dropped when compared to his RB Leipzig days. Some would potentially see this as a negative, with so much of his game predicated on an uncanny ability to beat a man, with slick, slalom like dribbles. On the contrary, this would instead appear to be another subtle tactical tweak from Klopp, in an attempt to harness Keita’s attributes, and tailor them to the demands of the English game. With Liverpool’s newly evolved style now far more possession centric, it’s hardly surprising that the German gaffer would want to minimise the frequency of risky dribbles forward. Klopp has seemingly made similar adjustments to Gini Wijnaldum’s game over the past few seasons, who has morphed from a marauding attacking creator, into a disciplined, hardworking central midfielder. Keita hasn’t quite undergone the same transition, but it certainly is clear that Keita is more cautious in his attacking approach, picking and choosing the right moments to launch a mazy run with the ball. This alteration is highlighted best by the player’s possession statistics, which have improved greatly at Liverpool, as Keita now seldom gives possession away cheaply – instead of choosing to recycle the ball by going backwards or sideways until the right pass presents itself. Keita’s dribbles per 90 have marginally increased so far this season, with the player completing an average of 1.6 per game in the league this year, compared to just 1 last campaign. It’s a sign that the midfielder is growing in confidence this season, and that he is perhaps picking the right moments in which to deploy his party piece.
We can see evidence of Kieta’s refined role in some of his recent displays for Liverpool. Against Bournemouth last month, in what was a man of the match-winning cameo, Keita’s movement, and ability to link the midfield to attack was central. He could often be found going beyond the attackers as they came short, almost becoming the sides 4th forward. For his goal, he combined beautifully with Mo Salah in the box, playing a neat one-two, before firing past the keeper. That understanding was replicated again in the World Club Cup, where, after Salah again came short to recover the ball, Keita made an excellent run in behind the Egyptian. He was expertly picked out by Salah with a supreme back heel, and once again finished well to hand Liverpool an early lead. His ability to now make intelligent runs and find space is clearly the product of extensive training groundwork – adding a new skill to the repertoire of a previously one-dimensional player. Now, Keita can beat you with a sublime dribble, he can open your defence with an incisive pass, but he can also pick up wonderful forward positions, and made intelligent runs when the defence is far too preoccupied by the sides devastating front three. It’s a metamorphosis that is taking his game to a whole new level, making it ever harder for Klopp to drop him from the starting XI.
Keita’s role in Liverpool’s recent 4-0 demolition away at Leicester may not have been quite so eye-catching, but it did succinctly demonstrate every way in which he can now hurt an opposition. Firstly, in transition he was efficient as always, galloping forward before playing Mo Salah in on goal -for what should have been a worthy assist. Later in the match, he showcased shrewd position awareness, dropping into half-spaces out wide to help bring Liverpool’s full-backs into the game. And most of all, we saw glimpses of the old Naby, who darted through the middle of Leicester City’s midfield with a number of throw-back slalom dribbles. It was a complete performance, one that has been 18 months in the making. If Naby can finally shake off the frustrating injuries and ill-timed setbacks, it could well be the start of a devasting spell for the explosive Guinean.