Jurgen Klopp and His Naby Keita Conundrum
Naby Keita joined Liverpool with much fanfare in the summer of 2018.
The Reds pursued the Guinean for the entirety of the summer of 2017, but with his club Red Bull Leipzig, reluctant to sell, a compromise was reached that the English club would pay a £10M premium and sign the midfielder the following summer.
Given Keita’s imperious two-season stint in the Bundesliga — he also played Champions League football in his second season in Saxony — it was easy to see why Liverpool were prepared to wait for the diminutive midfielder to join.
The Guinea international started life at Anfield in fine fettle, but soon injuries — the bane of his life in red to date — began to take their toll. In total, he has missed 54 games through injury in his time in red so far.
To compound the misfortune from his point of view, the other players he competed with for a spot in the Liverpool engine room showed a level of consistency that made it hard for Jurgen Klopp to not pick them.
Since 2018, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain — although injury has afflicted him, too — James Milner, Fabinho, and Thiago have seen plentiful minutes in comfortably the most quality dense part of the Reds’ squad.
Others, like Adam Lallana — whose final few seasons were blighted by fitness setbacks — and Curtis Jones, whose emergence from the academy has been supercharged this season, have also been called upon.
When Keita has played he has largely been good but his qualities — the slaloming dribbling style, the cutting passes, the high energy defensive game, and the innate understanding with Mohamed Salah — have almost been rendered moot because of his inability to knit a consistent run of injury-free games together.
This season has been the number 8’s — a number which came loaded with expectation because he was the first to inherit it after club legend Steven Gerrard left the club — worst in terms of availability. At the time of writing, the 26-year-old has played just over 500 Premier League minutes.
In a season as compressed as this, a player of Keita’s calibre being more readily available would have been a huge boost to Liverpool, if even just for rotational purposes. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case and players like Wijnaldum and Thiago have had to play far more frequently than advisable. Predictably, after shouldering a huge physical burden, their performances haven’t been as good as would have been anticipated, especially in the case of the Dutchman.
All these factors leave Klopp with a difficult decision to make in the summer.
Conventional wisdom says that a player with only two years remaining on his contract — with no noises surrounding a new deal being put on the table — is in danger of being transfer listed. But circumstances could delay Keita’s departure.
A glance at Liverpool’s midfield options shows that the Guinean is amongst the youngster. All three of Henderson, Thiago and Wijnaldum — who is leaving the club, regardless — are 30-years-old. Milner, meanwhile, is 35.
Selling Keita now would mean that the Reds — in a summer where there will likely be a lot up of upheaval in their squad — would potentially have to sign two midfielders, given that — as mentioned — Wijnaldum is off to pastures new.
This is a far from ideal scenario when there is no guarantee that the club will have the prospect of Champions League football to offer and the associated financial garnishing.
Also, from a strictly footballing perspective, it would be difficult to immerse two players into the idiosyncrasies of playing in the Reds’ midfield a process which — just ask Fabinho — can take a large chunk of time, regardless of whether the player is of the highest quality. This would be made even more difficult if Liverpool — as looks likely now — will end up playing Europa League football, which means more games and less training time.
Who could — in the midst of a global pandemic and the ruinous impact it has had on the club’s finances — afford to tempt the Anfield club into parting ways with Keita, while also being suitably attractive to the player? The options seem finite.
At some stage, Liverpool are going to have to begin a refurbishment of their ageing midfield and what they do with their Guinean midfielder — whose unreliable fitness record has been the only obstacle to him thriving at Anfield — is going to be interesting.