There has been little in terms of prolonged success for Naby Keita at Liverpool so far, but there are signs that the No. 8 can return to consistency in fitness and form.
First it was his muscles, then a knock, his groin, then torn muscles, another knock and then his groin again.
Prevalent injuries have been the perpetual theme of Naby Keita’s Liverpool career. Just when the diminutive Guinean looks set to kick on, his body becomes an obstacle.
It is a frustrating cycle, and one Keita will be desperate to end.
He is well placed to do so.
Growing up in the hustle and bustle port city of Conakry where the streets are crammed and filled to the brim, there was little space to play his beloved game. Keita would improvise playing football on the streets and dodging incoming cars and motorbikes in the process.
The experience shaped him. Even now, there are vestiges of a street-footballer eminent in his game. Keita can be unpredictable at times. He is a fighter who can run up and down the pitch.
Often the renegade, he has the ability to catch his opponents off-guard and find a way past with unconventional and marauding runs.
His goal against Monterrey in the semi-final of the Club World Cup, when Keita broke free from the midfield and ran in behind the Mexican side’s defence, is a perfect example.
There is guile and ingenuity to the way Liverpool’s No. 8 plays. He is often an under-appreciated jewel at Anfield.
Burdened by the No. 8 shirt and the ‘Coutinho replacement’ label which had been heaped upon him, the Guinean is the victim of false expectations.
Keita will never compare to Gerrard or Coutinho. He is not the type to make Hollywood passes or to weave past defenders with enchanting tricks. He is an industrious player who likes to drop into deeper midfield positions and drive at opponents.
His movement is unselfish and often frees up space for his team-mates on the pitch. Defensively, he is equally adept with an impressive work rate and a voracious hunger to win the ball back.
Statistically, Keita often produces the best numbers in every game he plays, both in terms of making key passes and dribbles going forward, as well as interceptions and tackles defensively.
Yet his contribution is often undermined because it is not flamboyant or worthy of a highlight reel.
Take Keita’s recent performance in Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Norwich at Carrow Road as an example. He played 84 minutes, made one key pass, completed two dribbles (which was the most of any player), won eight out of his 10 duels, making two tackles and eight recoveries.
That is a solid box-to-box performance. Yet despite this, the Guinean was heavily criticised for what many deemed ‘below par’.
Fans may expect something of Keita which he is not. The Guinean has never been the type to hit prolific numbers in terms of goals and assists—only once has he scored more than 10 in a season, with 12 for Salzburg in 2015/16. He’s always been the engine and the beating heart of the team.
Keita’s injury burden has not helped his Liverpool career either.
Last season, he scored three in five starts after his return from a knock, but a groin injury would rule him out for the remaining four games of the campaign.
Likewise, in December, Keita managed three goals before suffering another groin strain.
In those brief yet sublime spells, Keita was everything Liverpool fans would expect from their midfield maestro.
Unfortunately, on both occasions, injuries frustrated the Guinean. Injuries which have been somewhat unprecedented and uncharacteristic.
Keita rarely missed games at Leipzig and Salzburg, he played over 30 times in every single season prior to his arrival at Anfield, which is an indication that his current frustrating spell will surely come to an end.
It is why the fans should be patient. Once, Keita rids himself of his injury woes he will become a key cog in Jurgen Klopp’s midfield.
“I never doubt Naby,” the manager said in February.
“Of course he needs games, that’s clear, that’s why he gets games when he is fit. If you look at when he was fit and how often he played then, not so bad. That’s the situation.”
It is clear that Klopp trusts Keita to perform when his body allows him: of his 51 appearances for the club so far, the Guinean has started 33, or 65 percent.
That caveat remains, though, as he has been substituted in 22 of those 33, or 67 percent.
This break may aid Keita’s situation, of course, as he is able to fully recover from any long-standing issues ahead of a ‘mini pre-season’ back at Melwood when measures are relaxed.
On his day, he is up there with some of the best midfielders in the world. He just needs to do it on a regular basis to prove his worth.
But there is no question, the Naby Keita saga at Liverpool has only just begun.
* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield. If you’d like to contribute a piece for consideration please see this page. Follow Ben on Twitter, @BenBocsak.