I can’t pretend that I am not a little disappointed in the lack of impact so far from Naby Keita. After all, there are few signings over the past few years that I have been more excited about. The sense of anticipation was only heightened as we were forced to wait an entire year for the player to arrive according to the terms of the deal with his former club Red Bull Leipzig. This was like the Divock Origi transfer once again, but multiply my levels of excitement at least two or three times over! Bear in mind I was and remain a huge supporter of Origi.
I had the Keita Liverpool FC future already mapped out in my head. I envisioned Keita becoming the key man in midfield, the one finally worthy of taking over the iconic number eight worn for so long by one of my heroes, Steven Gerrard. In fact it was something we had in common as Keita himself admitted that he used to play as Gerrard on the streets in his hometown of Conakry growing up.
“I had watched Steven Gerrard growing up as a kid and admired him so that was a special day.
We used to play in the streets wearing a Liverpool shirt. My dad had a love of Liverpool back then when I was 11 or 12 years old.
I wanted to be like him. It couldn’t be anyone else. He was always the boss of the team.”
From watching Keita during his time in Leipzig, I simply couldn’t foresee a situation where he didn’t hit the ground running. He simply possessed all the qualities needed not only to survive in the Premier League but thrive. I didn’t even think it was out of the question that he could win Player of the League in first season. He just seemed that good.
These thoughts were only validated more during pre-season where Keita seemed to settle in seamlessly and was already starting to dictate the pace of play. I even got a chance to see him up close when the Reds visited Dublin where while he didn’t set the world alight, there was a sense he was holding back for the start of competitive fixtures.
This opinion was only backed up when Keita began the league campaign in impressive fashion against West Ham. He was instrumental in setting up the opening goal of the campaign for Mo Salah and generally looked right at home on the Anfield pitch. The darting runs, the ball retention, the incisive passing… he was a dream to watch. Sadly though, the form didn’t last long.
Through all my unbridled enthusiasm about Naby Keita, I had selectively chosen to forget that new players have a tendency to take a while to settle into the Jurgen Klopp way of playing. There is a level of discipline that many players simply haven’t had to get used to before. We have seen this trend most recently with Andy Robertson, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, and Fabinho. The difference being all those players were eased in much more gently than Keita who Klopp clearly as also hoped could make the leap a little quicker.
What I shamefully forgot to consider given that I bring this factor up a lot is that at the end of the day these players are just people. Keita didn’t speak much english upon his arrival at Liverpool and is still slowly working on improving his communication skills. We can be thankful in this instance for a player like Sadio Mané who is also a native french speaker who clearly helped Keita settle in.
It is one thing to pick up a difficult playing system when you understand the language, let alone when almost everything needs interpreting. It is mentally as well as physically draining.
Keita also picked up a painful injury which sidelined him at a crucial point in his development. His first setback occurred on international duty with Guinea in October before he had a relapse in the crucial Champions League tie in Naples.
Since returning to the squad though, he has been gradually imposing himself more and more on games. The signs of life are back. He looked in great form during an energetic display at Burnley in which he took extra responsibility on with the regular front three not starting the game.
More recently, Keita has started to look a little more confidant on the ball. He looked incredibly nervous in the FA Cup match against Wolves. He was getting in all the right positions but he managed to somehow misplay simple passes. You could sense he still wasn’t playing with the freedom that used to be a staple of his game. There was a tightness in his game that wasn’t natural at all.
Most recently, his performance against West Ham this week was a quite literally a tale of two halves. A very uncertain first half display left many thinking of him as the scapegoat. However, it was Keita almost exclusively in the second half who tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck, and make something happen. His guile almost paid off with what would have been (offside or not) a glorious assist to Origi with the last kick of the game.
It is sad to see that it seems that Naby Keita is becoming an easy player to point the finger of blame at. It reminds me of similar situations for players like Lucas Leiva, Dejan Lovren, and of course Jordan Henderson. Thankfully for Keita, two of that group remain at the club and can help him through what has been a surprisingly difficult season.
I have been watching patiently all season hoping for the real Naby Keita to stand up. It appears as if we are finally starting to see what he is capable of, and I sense he will be an instrumental down the stretch run. He will most definitely be worth the wait.