By Adibir Singh – @adi_sza
The weight of expectation was looming large on Naby Keita from the day he signed for Liverpool in 2017- for a then club record fee of £52 million. Being personally handed the number 8 shirt from its predecessor, and the greatest player to ever don the red of Liverpool- Steven Gerrard- was a sign of what Liverpudlians wanted the 25-year-old to emulate.
Liverpool had recruited big names in that window- Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri, all adding to the ranks of the Reds. Of these, Keita had been the most lacklustre in terms of his performances.
Many fans have been disappointed with the Guinean’s form and contribution to the side since his arrival- but niggling injuries have prevented Keita from having any sort of run of form for the Merseysiders.
He started only 16 games in his maiden season before a series of groin and muscle injuries left him out of the squad over a number of weeks. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Liverpool had found a starting XI that was impossible to drop because of their sheer quality throughout the season.
The competition for places and vying with the likes of Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade Chamberlain and Milner, for one of two available places made Keita’s break into the first team an even tougher task.
The 19/20 didn’t start any better- missing the first seven games with muscle problems and being a bit-part player till Matchday 29 with a series of groin injuries, left him well behind in the pecking order for the midfield places.
With 3 months of rehab and recovery after the suspension of the league in March, Keita’s form since the return of football in June has been nothing short of sensational. One goal and two assists do little justice to the performances he has put in since establishing a birth in the midfield three, on the back of Jordan Henderson picking up a season-ending injury against Brighton.
Liverpool’s strongest team revolves around a standard 4-3-3 system with three central midfielders in close quarters to each other. Klopp prefers one deep lying centre-mid to tuck in between the centre backs- while the other two more advanced midfielders offer lung-busting support to the attack as well as help implement the infamous ‘gegen-pressing’.
Keita’s best role is as an ‘8’- being the highest point of attack amongst the midfielders to tie the transition to the forwards together. His time at Leipzig made him a stand-out star in the attacking midfield role- playing at the tip of a midfield diamond to be the spearhead of attack.
Klopp’s system hasn’t allowed him this freedom to roam. Liverpool’s success boils down to how hard the team has to work in the middle of the park to win back second balls, and spring counter attacks. This is where Keita’s game suffered earlier because of him not being able to adapt quickly enough.
Two years since his move and he finally seems to be coming to the fore- boasting an impressive skillset of close control and excellent tactical awareness, his neat footwork to beat the first press of the opposition and then drive at defences is a sight Kopites are becoming accustomed to seeing.
A string of 10-15 minute cameos were never going to be enough for Keita to showcase his abilities- proven by the fast-paced tempo Liverpool play with when he does start.
The bridge in the final third between attack and defence- Keita brings a side to the game not seen in Henderson or Wijnaldum, which has helped unlock even the most stubborn of backlines. His defensive contributions haven’t gone unnoticed either- averaging 4.49 tackles and 2.39 interceptions per game- second only to Fabinho in the side.
Jurgen Klopp has been fairly vocal about the unfilled potential a fully fit Keita possesses- and not losing the managers backing could go a long way for the former Leipzig man. With Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson set to miss the start of next season- it could be a blessing in disguise for Keita to establish himself as a nailed-on starter.
Despite already being a Champions league and Premier League winner, Keita has featured scarcely in this dominant Liverpool team- something he’ll want to change next season and prove his worth to the Anfield faithful.
The best is yet to come from the Guinean magician- and he’ll be hoping to finally do justice to the illustrious number 8 shirt on his back.