Naby Keita is back in the spotlight again this week.
There were just 8 minutes left of normal time when the Guinea-born midfielder replaced Gini Wijnaldum at Old Trafford. Klopp, in desperate need of an equaliser, turned to both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana before introducing Keita. All three substitutions proved vital to the Reds earning a point at their traditional bogey-ground. Lallana scored the equalising tap-in, Oxlade-Chamberlain provided a burst of energy and the readiness to take on defenders, but it was Keita, who alongside Fabinho, showed the quality cultivate possession and dictate play.
Although context must be considered, because Keita came on when Manchester United were at their deepest, the stats still back up that Naby made a substantial difference to proceedings.
In just 13 minutes, Keita made six forward passes. This is a stark comparison to Henderson and Wijnaldum’s seven forward passes each in 82 and 72 minutes respectively. This ability to break opposition lines is a part of why Klopp was so keen on Keita.
At the moment, most of Liverpool’s ability to break opposition lines comes from our fullbacks, Alexander-Arnold in particular. However, if Keita can nail down a spot in the first team, something which he is yet to do for one reason or another, his attacking threat could be the thing to turn some of last season’s seven draws into wins.
His arrival in the summer of 2018 was met with great excitement after a full year of supporters avidly watching him in the knowledge that he would be ours the following season.
When he agreed, in 2017, that he would spend one more season in the Bundesliga before leaving to join Liverpool, Keita singlehandedly turned some fans into experts on RB Leipzig.
Unsurprisingly, during the 2017/18 Bundesliga, RB Leipzig’s UK viewing figures increased.
Despite Leipzig not living up to expectations in that second campaign; finishing sixth; four places lower than the previous year; Keita still performed well enough to make us excited for his inaugural Liverpool season.
It wasn’t his 17/18 campaign though that earned his transfer to Liverpool. It was the previous one. The one in which he scored eight goals, reached eight assists and produced the trickery which most Reds watched in the obligatory YouTube compilation viewing that seems to come with any new signing.
At Liverpool, Naby has yet to reach the heights of the campaign which saw him catapulted to top transfer target across Europe. This is down to a variety of reasons.
Injury has caused his first 13 months at Melwood to be fragmented. He hasn’t had the traditionally long, required time to adapt to Klopp’s system. Others such as Fabinho and Robertson, both now world-class players, had to wait for their moment to slot into the manager’s preferred eleven.
This though is where Naby Keita is first shown to be someone different. Somewhat of an anomaly.
The Guinean born midfielder started four of the first five matches last season. Good performances in victories against West Ham, Palace and Brighton appeared to show him settling in well. In none of those matches had he been exceptional, however, neither had he stood out as a weakness.
One moment of brilliance especially stands out.
It came at Selhurst Park in the second league game of the season. Under slight pressure, Alisson played the ball out to Keita who was facing his own goal. He must have only been about twenty yards from his own corner flag when the ball rolled towards him. With Andros Townsend closing down, Keita used his first touch to produce a ‘Cruyff-esque’ turn to skip past the oncoming winger. Now with space ahead of him, Keita drove forward before playing a pinpoint pass, over the heads of the Crystal Palace defenders and midfielders, into Salah’s path. If Mo had managed to convert the chance, we’d be seeing it played for years to come on highlight reels.
This was just a glimpse of the talent he possesses.
Keita isn’t simply an aggressive midfielder who will glide past players at ease only to then give the ball away due to poor decision making. Keita again proves himself an anomaly because he has the ability to do much more. One could compare him to Paul Pogba, but they’d likely be wrong. He possesses technical ability, similar to that of the Frenchman, but what makes him unique is his pressing.
His high work rate and knack for winning back possession are what made Klopp decide to break Liverpool’s transfer record. As his high-intensity style of play continues to be adopted by more and more managers in modern-day football, this hard-working ethos is exactly what the German is looking for players to buy into more than ever.
In Keita’s breakthrough year at Leipzig, he averaged 5.86 interceptions per 90 minutes. In comparison to others, Henderson’s average last season was 4.59. To put Keita’s interception stats into further context, against Manchester United, the midfield made a combined total of just four between them. Against Leicester that figure was even lower. The midfield’s combined total of interceptions was just three.
Football isn’t played on paper, but Keita’s stats do showcase his abilities.
We also see this when looking at his attacking threat. In his debut Liverpool campaign, he made 267 progressive passes and 43 progressive runs. For comparison, Henderson made thirteen fewer progressive passes despite having far more game time. This isn’t a criticism of Henderson, as they are normally asked to do different jobs, however, it does highlight the benefit of having Naby Keita on form.
Keita achieved these stats without even being on top-form. When comparing the 16/17 and 18/19 campaigns, Keita averaged roughly two fewer interceptions per game for Liverpool.
We don’t need statistics to see that Keita hasn’t yet hit proper form at Anfield, but Keita’s impact at times last year was perhaps understated. Some thought that his withdrawal due to injury, at the Nou Camp, was why Liverpool lost the match.
The injury came at a time when Keita was regaining his place in the side. He had started five of the previous six matches and contributed goals against Porto, Southampton and Huddersfield. Other fixtures in which he started, towards the end of the season, included Barcelona, Cardiff and Southampton away, as well as Chelsea at home. This brings into question the notion that Klopp doesn’t trust him in big matches. There aren’t many games bigger than Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final or Chelsea in a title race.
Naby Keita can be quite a unique figure in European football at the moment; a world-class box-to-box midfielder. If he fulfils his potential and helps Liverpool to win major silverware, Keita could go down in Liverpool history as one of our most talented midfielders ever.
We can argue that he hasn’t had much luck yet, but now it’s time that he really starts to step up.