Naby Keita wasn’t among the star men for Liverpool in 2019/20, but the signs at the end of the campaign were extremely promising.
Keita’s first season with the Reds was a deeply frustrating one, as he struggled to live up to the almost-unrivalled hype surrounding his arrival.
There were glimpses of magic and some good performances, but indifferent showings and injury issues held him back.
It’s easy to forget that he started away to Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final—and started well for that matter—only to limp off early and not play again that season.
Naby Keita, 2019/20
Started: 16 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 11
Unused sub: 11
Overall Season Rating: 7.5
More fitness frustration
Frustration was the order of the day from the off, unfortunately, as Keita was struck down with a hip problem prior to the UEFA Super Cup win over Chelsea.
Only one league game had been played at that point, so it was easy to understand the widespread negative reaction to the news.
There was such a desire for Keita to shine and hit his potential, but every time he looked like exploding, something held him back.
He had a positive impact that afternoon at Old Trafford, coming off the bench and bringing much-needed purpose to Liverpool’s midfield, playing a part in Adam Lallana‘s equaliser.
Leading up to the Christmas period, Keita produced an unpredictable mix of form, with a “poor showing” against Arsenal in the League Cup highlighted in our player ratings, but he was also hailed as a “key threat” at home to Genk.
Keita’s best outing in the first half of the season came away to Bournemouth in December—a day that saw him make his first league start of the campaign.
His outside-of-the-foot finish put Liverpool 2-0 up at Dean Court, before he slid a perfect ball into the path of Mohamed Salah, who added a third.
Just as it looked as though Keita was in a groove—he also scored in the 2-0 victory over former club Salzburg three days later, then a week on in the Club World Cup semi-final win over Monterrey—that pesky injury curse struck once again.
He suffered a pre-match knock at home to Sheffield United early in the New Year, and only two more starts came in the league before play was halted in March.
One of those came against West Ham at Anfield, but he was hooked in the second half and Liverpool turned the game around in his absence.
That, coupled with the continued excellence of the go-to midfield trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum, meant it looked like being another season to forget for Keita, despite Liverpool’s great success.
A big response would follow, though.
The birth of Naby Lad
Of all the Reds players to benefit most from the three-month hiatus between March and June, Keita tops the list.
After returning well-rested and injury-free, the midfielder was one of the great plus-points of the surreal post-lockdown period.
With a spring in his step both on and off the ball, Keita has looked something close to the player we watched on YouTube highlight reels, gliding through the midfield and combining effortless dribbling with tenacious tackling.
While others struggled to find their previous rhythm, or naturally took their foot off the gas a little, Keita was a man out to prove a point.
A Man of the Match contender in starts against Everton, Aston Villa and Brighton, Keita brought a level of understated guile that can be lacking with Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum, epitomised by back-to-back assists in the latter two matches.
In his next start, on a trophy-lifting night against Chelsea at Anfield, the former RB Leipzig man scored a stunner, and he was then the best player at Newcastle, finishing the season in style.
His stock has not been higher in a Liverpool shirt, perhaps apart from when he walked through the door at Melwood.
Building on the promise
If Keita can rid himself of his fitness problems and be regularly available moving forward, the sky is the limit for him at Liverpool.
Still a divisive player in many ways, mainly because expectations were so great, there is a swell of positivity building and an appreciation of what he offers.
Would Keita start if Liverpool were playing in the Champions League final tomorrow? Probably not. But he is edging closer to being a key man.
Henderson has recently turned 30 and Wijnaldum also reaches that milestone in November—given the intensity required to play in this midfield, both may be managed more carefully by Klopp in 2020/21.
After two relentless seasons from the pair, it wouldn’t be a shock to see their form dip slightly, too, paving the way for Keita to play a more prominent role.
He can, and needs to, find a further gear if he is to become the superstar he was tipped to be, but he is heading in the right direction.
Call it a bold prediction, but next season could be one that sees Keita leap from promising talent to one of the Premier League‘s outstanding midfielders.
Should injuries continue, however, patience will begin to wear thin.
Best moment: The thunderous strike against Chelsea – his best goal for Liverpool so far.
Worst moment: The insipid performance at home to West Ham, which led to him being substituted after 57 minutes.
Role next season: An increasingly key role in the middle of the park.