What to Expect When Expecting a Naby
It’s clearly an exciting time to be a Liverpool fan.
A Champions League final in Kiev awaits, with the Reds once again at the forefront of European football’s greatest night. Meanwhile, the squad itself continues to grow and develop at the behest of its German architect, led by the season’s most scintillating attack.
That’s not to mention the arrival of one of football’s most impressive young midfielders.
When Liverpool signed Naby Keita from Leipzig, on the proviso that he would remain in the Bundesliga for another year, fans were allowed the deep sigh of relief that rounded out a dramatic transfer saga. The deal ultimately saw Liverpool pay £52.75 million, courtesy of Leipzig’s sixth-placed finish, but would have wait a year to have their prized player.
The year delay wasn’t ideal – especially for the player himself, who has looked frustrated and apathetic at times this season – yet Liverpool could rest assured knowing they had secured one of the most dangerous midfield weapons in football, and someone who will fit seamlessly in with the project Jürgen Klopp is building.
So, what exactly should Liverpool supporters expect from their shiny new Guinean?
Watch any highlight reel of Naby Keita’s exploits – as presumably every Liverpool fan has done ten times over by now – and you’ll quickly become privy to Naby’s explosiveness in close quarters, lethality on the counter-attack and effectiveness around the penalty area. One can see his dribbling ability, tackling nous and finishing all for show, but that only really paints a perverted picture. He may well be capable of the flashy stuff, but Naby Keita is so much more than that.
His tendency to dribble with the ball belies an urgency in his play to always move forwards. Not enough credit is given to how he’s able to mastermind a counter-attack; he can be the one to start the move and the one to give the final assist.
He’s been the beneficiary of pace: the likes of Emil Forsberg, Brume and Jean-Kevin Augustin have emulated their team as a whole with inconsistent seasons for Die Bullen but nobody can doubt their ability on the break, and Timo Werner’s movement and dynamism has only improved, meaning Keita will come into a Liverpool team whose essence is largely similar to the one he’s leaving in Germany.
Similar, yet much more riveting: Keita linking up with Mané (who has become a much more creative player this season), the pace of Salah and the crafty movement of the Reds’ Brazilian number nine is a recipe for delight, as he’s given the space to blaze past staunch defenders.
He scored six goals this season, even though he only started 23 times and endured what many perceived as a troubled season. That’s still more goals than Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can combined, while he also managed more assists (5) than either of those players too.
Liverpool have had troubles with the lack of impetus from midfield this season: it’s often been seen that when the incredible front three don’t fire, Klopp’s men are stuck.
Naby offers the solution to that, especially if his arrival is accompanied by the someone in the ilk of Nabil Fekir and a creative midfielder too. So how exactly will Keita fit in, tactically?
The Third Man in the 4-3-3
In Klopp’s current setup; a 4-3-3 with two holding midfielders behind one more attacking one, Naby could easily act as the third man, able to isolate his opposite number, get on the ball and dribble past, forcing the opposition back line onto their heels and creating space for the three dastardly villains attacking hapless defenders ahead of him.
At the same time, Naby would be able to press and roam as he saw fit, replicating the role of the manic pressing machine that Klopp turned Adam Lallana into, albeit with a much, much greater effectiveness in both scoring goals and creating chances. He’d be able to engage in defensive work an appropriate amount, which is good because Keita’s box-to-box role at Leipzig saw him make 2.5 tackles per game across both seasons at the club.
Should Liverpool’s pursuit of Jorginho bear fruit, it would be ideal slotting Naby into that third midfield spot, with a stronger, more defensively minded midfielder partnering Jorginho to help Liverpool assert themselves on games.
The Second Man in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1
However, should Liverpool’s pursuit of someone like Ruben Neves or Wilfried Ndidi instead pay off (or someone more akin to the physical stature of Emre Can) then there is certainly scope for Naby to become the second midfielder in a two, allowing him to get more time on the ball, drive the team forwards from deeper, and perhaps most enticingly of all, combine with another dribble-hungry player ahead of him.
Liverpool’s lack of a creative spark from midfield can be solved in two ways: an intricate passer of the ball who’s able to dictate the game before him, or Naby’s style of creativity – brute force and assertion, done with incisive passing between the lines. Stick those two assets together, however, and you’d have not only enough pressing power in the centre of the park, but a devastating recipe for the counter-attack.
It would rely on Liverpool replacing Emre Can with a playmaker, but Keita could easily drop slightly deeper as a secondary member of the midfield three and push his team higher up as he carries the ball; still getting in and around the box to do things that other players aren’t capable of (in the words of Leipzig teammate Youssef Poulsen.)
Either way, Liverpool have procured one of world football’s most prodigious young midfielders. Rest assured, whatever the Premier League is expecting, teams won’t know what hit them.
If you want to learn more about Naby Keita, you can listen to a “Gags Tandon Show” Special, recorded last season with this writer on all things Naby Keita here.