Naby Keita was supposed to be a game-changer for Liverpool. Courted by many of Europe’s elite after an eye-catching debut campaign with RB Leipzig, it was viewed as a coup when the Reds managed to strike a deal with the Bundesliga side to secure his signature. The agreement saw the midfield dynamo remain in Germany for another year. It was a necessary evil to ensure the club beat out interest from Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
However, that extra year in the Bundesliga proved problematic. It wasn’t obvious at first, but Liverpool’s style during the 2017/18 campaign shifted. The Reds were forced into becoming a possession-based team with so many opponents sitting off and clogging up the middle third during 2016/17. The idea was that Keita would be the key to breaking down the low block, but Jurgen Klopp couldn’t wait 12 months to implement a change. So Liverpool started to build their attacks in wide areas.
Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold became key cogs in how the Reds created opportunities. The midfielders were transformed into facilitators. For example, Gini Wijnaldum ignored his attacking instincts to cover for a marauding left-back.
So the team Keita joined wasn’t the team he signed for. He signed for a team looking to create chaos and drag the opposition to their level but joined one looking to control, well, everything. He had to essentially learn to be a cog in a rigid system and his individual performances took a bit of a hit. Injuries didn’t help him either.
Long story short, we ended up with an injury-prone midfielder who wasn’t able to play his natural game. Generally speaking, he still does well when he’s involved but because he’s not scoring or assisting and he doesn’t look like the player everyone saw in those YouTube videos, he’s considered a flop.
His career at Anfield is at a crossroads now though. With just 18 months left on his deal, Liverpool need to make a decision on what to do with him next. With James Milner’s current contract expiring in the summer and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the same boat as Keita, you have to imagine a midfield overhaul is on the cards. It is unlikely that all three depart. That would be too much change in such a short space of time. But Milner and one of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Keita could well, and probably will leave.
Oxlade-Chamberlain helps the homegrown quota and he’s versatile. So that might work in his favour. You also have to consider that Keita is already reportedly on a decent wage. An extension likely means a pay increase. Can Liverpool justify having yet another squad player on such a high salary? That is how the 26-year-old will be viewed until he proves he can make 25 starts in the league, something he’s failed to do since his debut season with RB Leipzig.
It might be best for everyone involved to sell him this summer. Recoup some money on him that can be used on incomings and remove his salary from the wage bill. From his point of view, he’s going to want to be playing regularly when fit and there’s no guarantee Liverpool will do that. They certainly haven’t up until now anyway.