After a difficult maiden campaign at Liverpool, two goals in a week appear to have restored Naby Keita‘s belief and prepared him for a key role in the run-in.
Customs and traditions change often in football these days.
As the game becomes more of a business, with status and money-spinning names increasingly ever crucial, it’s no wonder the art of patience is lost.
Far too often elite teams function by a conveyor belt policy with new recruits, where the point of success or failure of a player is determined faster than ever before.
Despite this unhealthy climate of the way things now operate, Liverpool began to learn this week why they were right to take tentative steps with Guinean dynamo Naby Keita.
The summer signing many had—rightly or wrongly—invested a lot of their hopes and dreams in showed just what he is capable of on the biggest stage in European football.
A quarter-final first leg, under the lights in one of the most famous grounds in world football, yielded both a goal and a man-of-the-match performance.
The cynics across the fan base were happy to scoff along the lines of “about time” as Keita raged across the Anfield turf like a whirlwind.
For the energetic midfielder, it appears hyperbole has certainly set an unfair benchmark. None of which the player himself contributed to.
Sure, he took the most famous squad number in the modern Liverpool era—but as a sign of self-confidence rather than a grandiose ‘following in the footsteps’ type of gesture.
Jurgen Klopp was so determined to bring Keita to Merseyside he pulled out all the stops and sanctioned the powers that be in the transfer department to conclude an early deal.
With cards laying down on the table, the Reds played the best hand they could. Bayern Munich and Barcelona were sniffing—and so Liverpool committed to a waiting process for a player they believed in so greatly.
Belief is big with Klopp, and it always seems to work its way back into the equation—no matter what is being discussed.
Yet this willingness to wait and believe is not always as warmly welcomed across the fanbase.
And so Keita’s protracted switch, as exciting as it may have been, ultimately heaped pressure on the diminutive pocket rocket who was tearing up trees in the Bundesliga.
It’s all so very easy to forget Keita turned just 24 as recently as February. At a time when his position in the Liverpool squad was uncertain and injuries continued to niggle.
With Liverpool’s surge at the latter end of the previous campaign, many saw Keita as the missing piece of the puzzle to provide the side with that special kind of fizz the squad lacked.
Excitement made way for over-expectation, with the hefty transfer fee north of £50 million blindsiding some into thinking the finished article was arriving.
Make no mistake, the Reds knew they were parting with a lot of money to get their man—yet in the minds of Michael Edwards and the Fenway hierarchy, the initial fee was to be mere spare change compared to what the value of the player could ultimately rise to.
And so, finally, we have the clicking moment.
For the first weeks in succession, Keita has looked a true part of the Liverpool side and the player many were hoping would inherit the iconic No. 8.
The twists and turns and dazzling flicks seen in flashes earlier in the season against the likes of Crystal Palace and Burnley are now being grouped with an overall confidence and composure against much mightier opposition.
What a difference a goal can make. Or, in Keita’s current case, goals plural.
Confidence boosts are vastly underplayed at elite-level football, such is the expectance that Champions League tier players are always one touch away from the next piece of magic.
Yet for Keita, his hitting the back of the net twice in the space of the week has done wonders.
The celebratory images captured it all at the Anfield Road end, as Keita peeled away with Bobby Firmino smiling from ear to ear. Kid in a sweet shop kind of stuff.
And what followed was the beauty of seeing a player perform their natural game free of fear and self-doubt.
His early strike set up the platform for Keita to produce more tackles (six) and more successfully completed take-ons (two) than any other player in the first 45.
Taking both his and Liverpool’s drive into the second half, Keita attacked the Kop end with verve. Harrying opponents, stifling their momentum while crafting his own.
The Guinean was using several strings on his bow: the incise passes, trademark 360 turns, delicate one-twos and space-consuming runs.
Keita finished the game with more completed tackles than anyone else on the field (eight) yet combined a terrier-like performance with an artist’s fine hand.
This isn’t to overplay the status of a solo European performance—particularly with the tie far from over—but rather to admire the work of a calculated Liverpool setup that seems to have it very much on the money when it comes to transitioning players into desired roles.
As Klopp’s juggernaut has battered its way through to the make-or-break stage of the season still firmly in contention for the two biggest honours, a lot has been made of potential late star appearances.
An Alex Oxlade-Chamblerain winner perhaps, another Xherdan Shaqiri cameo masterclass.
Yet in Keita, Liverpool may well have the final flourish they needed all along.
What a time, of all possible times, for the midfield three to find a new dimension.
This spark must continue, and in Chelsea the Reds face a dauntingly familiar foe who have rained on the parade once before.
Keita ought to start against Maurizio Sarri’s men. Should he help the Reds to those huge three points, we really could be headed for the promised land.