It may have taken longer than expected but Naby Keita has finally arrived for Liverpool. After showing glimpses at various times throughout the season, the £52million signing has had a big impact in the past week for the Reds.
With top spot on the line, the Liverpool No.8 opened his account for the club against Southampton with an uncharacteristic goal – a stooping header at the back post – to level the game on the night. He then drilled in a goal fans are more accustomed to seeing when he picked the ball up on the edge of the area and fired home, albeit via a deflection, to open the scoring in the Champions League quarter-final tie against FC Porto.
The goals have clearly given him the confidence that was previously lacking. That, coupled with Liverpool now adopting more of an attacking style under Jurgen Klopp, has seen the return of the RB Leipzig Keita who tore up the Bundesliga during his debut season there.
The passive, almost out of sorts and out of position Keita fans had seen playing at Anfield for the majority of his time in red was gone. In his place was the dynamic, proactive midfield maestro who was eager to make something happen for Liverpool.
On another day, his driving run against Southampton, with the scoreline reading 1-1, results in a penalty for Klopp’s men. He also almost grabbed an assist at St Mary’s when his delicately lofted ball into the area found Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian did brilliantly to bring it under his spell before his goalbound effort was blocked by Maya Yoshida.
A goal, a decent penalty shout and a clever ball for Firmino to carve out an opportunity. He also had nine touches in the penalty area, substantially more than the 3.3 he’s averaged this term. That wasn’t the only stat to spike against the Saints. The diminutive Keita won two aerial duels when his season average prior to the game was 0.58. In what was a physical battle in the middle third, he stepped up.
But those numbers pale in comparison to what Keita posted against Porto. He completed three dribbles on the night, up from the 1.54 he’s averaged this season, he won eight tackles, the same amount as Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Firmino combined, and made two interceptions. For added context, the Liverpool No.8 has averaged 2.5 tackles and 1.8 interceptions this season.
His goal was fortunate, granted, but his overall play was much more encouraging. He played a number of threaded passes into the final third which took out Porto’s defensive lines, one of which was inches away from finding Mane free in the penalty area.
He also almost got the Reds in for a third late on when he slalomed his way past a host of Porto players and into the area before seeing his cross blocked. It was that final dart against the Portuguese side which should really excite Liverpool fans. Why? Because that was peak Keita from his RB Leipzig days.
The quick change of pace, the balance and the desire to get into a dangerous area. In a nutshell, that is what Keita brings to the midfield. And it’s why, with him in your starting XI, you’re more likely to turn a draw into a victory in those tight affairs.
Now, some people may say ‘well it’s only Southampton and Porto’ and it’s true, it is only Southampton and Porto. But did any other players grab either game by the scruff of the neck like Keita and have that much of an influence?
Futhermore, Southampton have been a top 10 team in terms of form since Ralph Hasenhuttl’s appointment, while Porto had lost just one of their last ten matches before their visit to Anfield. When the quality of opposition was really broken down, both matches weren’t as easy as they first appeared.
In some ways, it is reminiscent to when Fabinho started to find his feet for Liverpool. His man-of-the-match showings against Cardiff City and Red Star Belgrade counted for very little because many didn’t view the opposition as a serious threat.
But now the Brazilian midfielder is one of the first names on the teamsheet in the eyes of most fans and his form is the reason Jordan Henderson is now playing in a box-to-box role. It doesn’t matter who the opposition are, if the performance is a decent one then it helps with momentum and then that snowballs.
You can count on one hand how many mediocre performances Fabinho has had since those two matches he absolutely dominated.
There’s no reason Keita can’t use these two matches as a platform to help shape the remainder of his season. Momentum is on his side. He’s confident. And, perhaps most importantly, it looks like he’s enjoying his football again.
Keita’s inclusion in the team coincides with Firmino’s upturn in form, too. The Liverpool No.9 has been more involved during the past two matches and his general play has improved. It’s not exclusively down to Keita but having another body in the final third create more space for the Brazilian forward and gives him more passing options. It’s just appeared to make him slicker when in possession.
It’s not just Firmino who has benefitted. Liverpool have looked much more dangerous in those two patches. There’s been more fluidity in attack and they’ve looked more dangerous in the final third. It would be naive to suggest Keita is the spark for all of this, but the slaloming No.8 is certainly enjoying his role in this new-look Reds side.
NabyMania could run wild in the remaining month of the season and Liverpool would be all the better for it.