It is fair to say that there was a great deal of expectation placed on the young shoulders of Naby Keita before his arrival at Liverpool. After the club agreed a deal for the midfielder with RB Leipzig worth £66 million, Liverpool supporters have had to wait 12 long months to see the Guinean star in action. But is he the last piece of Jürgen Klopp‘s Premier League title jigsaw?
Over the past couple of seasons, when teams try and go toe-to-toe with Liverpool, they normally come out of it on the losing side. This explains the Reds’ generally good recent record against sides in the top six; when the likes of Arsenal try and match Liverpool man-to-man, they have been blown away by the heavy metal football on display.
However, when teams lower down the table play against the Merseysiders, they often sit back and let Liverpool have the majority of the ball, relying on strength in numbers at the back to nullify the threats that Jürgen Klopp’s side possess up front. This tactic was deployed by numerous managers to varying degrees of success last season, but is now one that will be very tricky to utilise against Liverpool following the acquisition of Keita.
Liverpool have a number of options in the centre of their midfield, and competition for places in the middle of the park has never been higher. They are all very capable players in their own right, but Keita is on a completely different level in terms of the unique skills he has to offer.
What sets Keita apart from his teammates is his outstanding athleticism and tenacity with the ball at his feet. If defences want to sit back in a tight defensive line, giving Liverpool time and space with the ball, it will play right into the hands of their new signing. Rather than picking out a sideways pass, Keita will drive towards the defence, drawing players towards him, subsequently creating more space for Liverpool’s dangerous wide men to work their magic.
The perfect example of this was on show for Liverpool’s opening goal of the season against West Ham at the weekend. After Trent Alexander-Arnold picked out Keita in midfield, he turned and instead of passing it straight away into the path of the bombarding Andy Robertson on the left-wing (as most midfielders would have done), the 23-year-old drove towards goal at pace, escaping the clutches of the West Ham midfielders and drawing in defenders before releasing the pass to Robertson at the perfect moment. The rest was simple, as all the full-back had to do was stroke the ball across the box for Mo Salah to tap home.
Alongside his athleticism, Keita’s dribbling skills are like those of a natural winger. Although he is perhaps not as quick as Mo Salah, his low centre of gravity and agility make it so hard to dispossess him. Similar to Philippe Coutinho, he will leave defenders trailing in their wake with his body feints as they try and get the ball off him. In 2016/17, Keita completed more dribbles than any other central midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues, a feat he very nearly repeated last season – not bad considering he only made 27 appearances.
Comparisons have been made with N’Golo Kante, but truthfully he is a very different type of player and one that plays a very different role within the team. Kante is the best defensive midfielder on the planet, whose tackling and interception numbers are always amongst the highest in Europe’s top five leagues. Popular statistics that are used for defensive-minded midfielders are tackles won and interceptions. Per 90 minutes, it is the Chelsea player who edges it in both categories, completing 2.33 tackles per 90 compared to Keita’s 2.15, and making 2.55 interceptions compared to Keita’s 2.05.
This is not to belittle the defensive efforts of Keita, but simply highlights just how good N’Golo Kante is. Many of the Guniean’s defensive stats surpass those of other midfielders in the top six such as Granit Xhaka, Nemanja Matic, Fernandinho and Jordan Henderson – and by some distance too.
Without wanting to exaggerate too much, in Naby Keita, Liverpool have found themselves the complete midfielder. Of course, he has only made one competitive appearance for the club, and further judgements should be reserved for a couple more months at least. But as many of the Liverpool faithful know, and now fans of other clubs are starting to realise, this player is simply too good and too talented to not be an outstanding asset in Liverpool’s midfield this season.
He is the perfect fit to Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing tactics, and his transition from the Bundesliga to the Premier League already seems like a seamless one. Watch out for the number of times this season (and beyond – he’s only 23) that Keita nicks the ball from an opposition midfielder and starts driving towards a back-tracking defence before either laying it off to one of the deadliest attacking tridents in European football, or going for goal himself.
Since Steven Gerrard left the club in 2015, nobody has carried the burden of wearing the iconic number 8 jersey for Liverpool. Although not wanting to speak to soon, it would seem that the Reds have finally found the player that is worthy of following in the footsteps of one of Liverpool’s most legendary players ever.