Let’s face it, since his big money switch from Red Bull Leipzig in the summer of 2018 Naby Keita has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him in Liverpool red.
That’s not to suggest the Guinean has been a bad signing, when his time with the European Champions should be assessed through the prism of the series of niggling injuries that have prevented him putting together an extended run of form.
With his slaloming dribbles, effortless body feints and ambitious passing game, the 25 year old is a supremely naturally gifted footballer and has produced several spurts of promising form; all of which have been unfortunately ended by ill time injuries .
Despite this god given talent, many have questioned whether Keita can channel his abilities into the structure of a Jurgen Klopp midfield and become the kind of tactical robot that the Reds’ manager want’s in his engine room.
And in the table toppers’ 1-0 win away to Norwich City last weekend, the diminutive midfielder proved how in sync he is with his managers demands with a performance of defensive solidity and discipline; in a showing that could have a big bearing in not only the rest of his season, but for the team as a whole.
Against the Canaries, Keita registered two successful tackles, recovered the ball eight times and won eight out of ten duels. These statistics look all the more impressive when you consider Liverpool boasted 63% of possession at full time, meaning the former RB Salzburg dynamo was extremely efficient in his pressing.
The Reds’ number 8 was equally as busy on the ball, adding one key pass and completing two dribbles, the most on the pitch, to show his rounded skill-set. Several more of Keita’s passes — ambitious in nature — were unsuccessful, but the braver and more progressive a player tries to be on the ball, the more likely they are to give it away.
A few days after the Carrow Road victory, Klopp elected to pick a midfield trio of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho for Liverpool’s Champions League last 16 first leg tie away to Atletico Madrid.
The German tends to turn to what is ostensibly a more defensively robust engine room for big European away games, but against Diego Simeone’s Rojiblancos the balance wasn’t quite right. With Atletico content to sit deep in their 442 block and flood the central band on the pitch, most of the Anfield side’s play was funnelled out wide to where the space was.
Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho are excellent players with rounded arsenal’s of ability, but one attribute the trio lack is the ability to progress the ball against deep blocks. Instead, thanks to the La Liga’s side admirable compact shape and concentration, much of the play-making responsibility was delegated by the midfielder’s to the full backs, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson, who were expected to prize open the stubborn rearguard.
With Atletico controlling the space — if not the possession — all of Robertson and Alexander Arnold’s attempts at creativity were easily dealt with by the hosts centre halves, Stefan Savic and Felipe, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane — and latterly Divock Origi — and Roberto Firmino denied the real estate to run into.
Keita, however, who excels in tight areas where his tendency to jink and dribble past opponents, could have been a remedy to these issues. While it is easy to say in retrospect, the Guinea international would have been the player best served in Liverpool’s squad to commit a man in the heart of the Spaniards’ shape and break up their defensive alignment and give the Reds’ fearsome attacking line a better quality of ball to work with.
With the Norwich game evidence of the former Leipzig man’s ability to carry out Klopp’s midfield disciplinary demands to the nth degree, as well as his natural attacking tendencies and capabilities, Keita could be the midfield impetus that could help the reigning champions defend their European crown.