Liverpool FC, since the departure of Rafael Benitez, has struggled defensively. Indeed, the last time the team conceded less than 40 goals in a league season was in the 2009/10 season, in which Liverpool conceded 35 goals. Since then, Liverpool have conceded 44 (2010/11), 40 (2011/12), 43 (2012/13), 50 (2013/14), 48 (2014/15), 50 (2015/16) and 42 (2016/17).
In that period, Liverpool has had Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kelly, Coates, Toure, Lovren, Matip, Klavan and others who have all played at centre-back. Players such as Carragher, Agger and Skrtel were consistent under Benitez, whilst Lovren flourished at Southampton, whilst so did Toure at Arsenal. Did these players regress sharply, or is there another factor to explain the increase in goals conceded per season.
Notably, Liverpool’s goal conceded per season shot up under Rodgers, and has only just dropped to 42, the lowest since 2011/12. Perhaps it’s worth asking whether Liverpool’s tactical setup is to blame for the increase in goals conceded, rather than the individual players, as Liverpool switched from a balanced, but defensively wary counter-attacking style under Benitez, to a much more open free-flowing style under Rodgers.
The tactical setup may play a part within the number of goals conceded, but why then do teams, such as Barcelona, who play an even more open, expansive style of play very rarely concede more than 40 goals per league season?
Teams, like Barcelona, have a much more robust midfield than Liverpool do, however, with defensive enforcers such as Sergio Busquets, who can tackle, intercept, break up play, and prevent attacks building in the first place.
Perhaps the answer to Liverpool’s poor defensive record lies not just with the defence, but with its midfield composition and personnel; over the past few seasons, Liverpool has deployed players in the defensive midfield position without adequate cover from teammates, or who lack the skills/ability to function as a proper defensive midfielder. For instance, Steven Gerrard filled the role of a deep-lying playmaker perfectly, but in terms of tackles and interceptions he fell well short – especially as he lost his pace – so too Lucas in the same position, who struggled to fit in creatively, whilst Henderson has functioned as the number 6 far too intermittently, meaning another player has had to fill in, creating instability in front of the defence.
It’s rather baffling the faith that Liverpool fans have placed in Virgil Van Dijk to correct this defensive issue. Especially when bearing in mind Van Dijk only played 21 league games last season, in which Southampton lost more than they won. He is undoubtedly a fantastic player, with qualities that would suit Liverpool, but to consider him the answer to Liverpool’s defensive woes is misguided, as he is one player within a five man defence, and with the demands of the modern full-back requiring them to push up extremely high, Liverpool’s defence will likely be exposed, unless opposition counter-attacks can be broken down before they can spring into action.
Naby Keïta would offer at least some respite in this regard. His interception per 90 rate is better than any other Liverpool midfielder, whilst his tackling per 90 rate is second only to Henderson.
|Aerial Duels won*
|Aerial Duel Success Rate
However, Keïta’s defensive contribution, whilst good, should only be a secondary consideration.
There are very few players in the world that fit Jürgen Klopp’s profile as well as Naby Keïta; young, strong, aggressive and brimming with talent, Keïta has all the tools and qualities to develop into a world-class player. The same type of player that Liverpool so often misses out on, only to ruefully mourn about as they prosper for another top European side.
It’s hard to describe just how well Keïta suits Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp. The Gags Tandon Show produced a scouting special in which they detailed Naby Keïta. Before you comment below or take a side in this discussion, I would urge you to listen to that podcast first, and if you have not already, please take a look at my Naby Keïta profiles/analyses (Naby Keïta: Under the Microscope/Naby Keïta: A Statistical Analysis/Naby Keïta: A Risk Worth Taking?) to see why I and many other Liverpool fans are so enthusiastic about potentially signing the young Guinean.
Despite the challenge of attempting to describe how well Keïta would suit Liverpool, I shall attempt it nonetheless.
In terms of his qualities, Keïta is a rounded midfielder, of the like not seen at Liverpool since Steven Gerrard. At Salzburg, he played in all midfield positions, from AML/R, to CAM, and CDM, but his best position is as a box-to-box centre-midfielder, in which he can use his vision and passing qualities to the highest effect.
His passing qualities suit Liverpool perfectly, as a player who enjoys carrying the ball and passing it, he naturally creates space in between defensive lines. He frequently carries and passes the ball on the edge of the second third of the pitch, or around the opposition box. Keïta carries the ball far better than Lallana, Wijnaldum or Henderson, meaning explosive/instantaneous Liverpool’s chance creation would be less reliant on Coutinho or Mané in the final third.
Through isolating defenders and his dribbling skills, Keïta has the ability to break the low-block which has troubled Liverpool for several seasons, especially so in 2016/17. His passes and vision would be suited to getting the best out of Salah and Mané, as far too often Liverpool’s midfielders, Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum and Lallana are reluctant to play a risky pass to break through opposition lines. Keïta would address the deficit in the frequency of key or penetrative passes from deep, central or advanced midfield.
|Dribble Success Rate
Keïta’s time at Leipzig has given him a valuable insight into the tactics of counter-pressing too. Unlike Lallana, Keïta is quicker, and better suited to pressing; at Leipzig he often functions as the third man within the press, trapping and cornering opposition players, and recovering the ball in transition phases. Lallana, on the other hand, often acts as a singular presser, far easier to bypass, and with a much poorer turnover rate as a result. Keïta’s intelligence in knowing when to press is also an asset of his; one of his pressing characteristics is that when the team is defending, he presses to disrupt or break the flow of a building attack. His pressing style would be far more akin to that of Klopp’s Dortmund at its peak, with organised, pack pressing, with higher success rates than the slightly more chaotic approach Liverpool currently have.
His offensive and defensive statistics compare positively against some of the league’s best players, for instance; Keïta has more dribbles per 90 than David Silva (2.7 per 90 versus 1.4), and has the same assists as Silva and Lallana, the latter of whom he averages more key passes and tackles per 90 than.
Furthermore, his defensive work is phenomenal too, with 3.0 tackles per 90, only 0.1 less than Ander Herrera, meaning his overall game rivals top Premier League defensive midfielders defensively, and top Premier League offensive midfielders in attacking terms too. For more detailed statistics in relation to Keïta versus some of the Premier League’s best midfielders, and Steven Gerrard in his prime, see this piece.
Additionally, of midfielders who have played thirty or more games in Europe’s top five leagues, Keïta is third per 90, fifteenth for tackles, and sixth (of midfielders and forwards) in dribbles per 90, behind only Dembele, Zaha, Hazard, Messi and Correa.
A notable post regarding Keïta, on reddit, by mennonate attracted considerable attention too:
‘I am very fortunate in my current job to be privy to a large amount of soccer data (metrics, advanced stats, etc.). I do not feel comfortable going into more detail on this, and I understand the skepticism that will accompany that claim; it is why I don’t often comment on reddit. However, last summer I felt compelled to comment just once about a young midfielder who is absolutely off the charts in regards to nearly every advanced metric that grades players. He even scored exceptionally high across separate midfield positions, which means that no matter what qualities were weighted highly in the metric (tackles for dm, impactful passes for am, etc.) he scored well. I won’t go into a whole lot of specifics about his stats, but I do want to mention one particular metric that makes him an extremely valuable player.
Packing – A metric which tries to determine the value of a pass or dribble by evaluating how many defenders it “takes out of the game”. Basically, how many defenders are in between the ball and the goal when a player receives the ball, and then how many still are when the next player receives it. Packing is very intuitive, and it’s something most viewers can notice while watching. The most well known company producing this data can be found here if you would like to read more about it. (also just google it, there are plenty of helpful articles)
Keita has absolutely incredible packing numbers. Even if most of his passes may look normal, he seems to always find a way to create a slight imbalance between offense and defense. He always picks the most impactful pass to give the attack whatever advantage can be gained based on current defender positioning. If you want to see an example, watch some of his full game highlights and take a look at how many times he is able to breakthrough the midfield “barrier” and push the ball into the space behind midfielders and in front of defenders. If you have watched Liverpool play under Klopp, you know how frustrating it is to watch a team have possession but be unable to exploit those gaps effectively to put pressure on a set defense.
Also as a side note, Sakho has always graded very high in this metric as well. Usually one of the only defenders near the top. It is why everyone on this sub was able to recognize that although his passing is clumsy, it is effective.’
Keïta’s skills and versatility would not just strengthen the starting XI, but would add valuable depth, variety, and quality to a midfield group that was desperately short, during 2016/17. We need only look at how Liverpool performed without Mané, or Coutinho to see the importance of having a proactive, aggressive, instantaneous player from midfield.
Too often during the second half of 2016/17, Liverpool appeared stagnant, and bereft of ideas. With Keïta, a dynamic midfielder, Liverpool would be able to finally stop being so reliant on Philippe Coutinho for creativity, or Mané for ingenuity. Not only this, but with Coutinho in midfield, Lallana, Wijnaldum and either one of Henderson or Can would find themselves on the Liverpool bench, providing the range, depth, and quality sufficient for a season that may span over 60 games.
The reality is with Keïta is that if Liverpool does not sign him it would be to the club’s detriment, and to the gain of another top European side, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. It’s exceptionally rare that a player will fit the profile of Klopp so well, let alone one that fits the needs of the midfield so well too.
In relation to the question of Van Dijk or Keïta, it’s clear both would be valuable additions, however, it is also clear Keïta would be better in midfield than Van Dijk would be in defence.
A defence can only be as good as the midfield in front of it, and the experience from the past few seasons would suggest that the current group of Liverpool midfielders has failed to provide adequate cover for the centre-backs, with Dejan Lovren, in particular, being exposed far too often, which happens to be one of his greatest weaknesses.
Van Dijk’s quality is undoubtable, however, unlike Keïta he does not challenge at the highest level in almost every aspect of his play, compared to other centre-backs.
Van Dijk may be first amongst centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues for successful aerial duels per 90, and thirteenth in clearances per 90, however, he is 35th in both tackles and interceptions per 90, and 49th for shots blocked.
Contrariwise, Keïta is second amongst all CDMs, CMs and CAMs in Europe’s top five leagues for dribbles per 90, ninth for interceptions, joint fifteenth for tackles, joint twenty-third for shots and joint-third for both goals and assists.
Naby Keïta’s has the potential to turn into a world-class player, and a perfect one to suit Liverpool; with his defensive and offensive statistics higher in almost all cases than Liverpool’s current midfielders, he would be a certified improvement, without even taking into account his style and aspects of play that are not represented statistically.
Van Dijk, on the other hand, may have Premier League experience, but has been injured since January, and is likely to have had zero game time before joining Liverpool, with him refusing to play until Southampton agree to sell him. Additionally, there are other centre-backs in the market that have similar qualities and numbers to Van Dijk, unlike Keïta who has virtually no parallel with his figures across the board.
This is not to say Van Dijk would be a poor signing, far from it, rather that Keïta would be far more influential and important to Liverpool, and may even go some way in addressing the structural issue within the midfield that has led to previous centre-backs being exposed, and Liverpool conceding such a high volume of goals.
Whilst it does not appear Liverpool have to choose between Van Dijk or Keïta, if that choice arose, Liverpool should choose Keïta ahead of Van Dijk.
Keïta is simply too good a player to miss out on, and whilst there are other fantastic defenders out there, as fans will soon come to realise, there is only one Naby Keïta.