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Naby Keita can go from YouTube footballer to Liverpool’s new Wijnaldum

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Naby Keita arrived at Liverpool with almost unrivalled expectations, but he must now be accepted as the system player Jurgen Klopp wants him to be.

The 12 months between Keita becoming the club’s then most expensive signing and actually joining the Reds saw anticipation grow.

The Guinean arrived at Anfield in 2018 with a reputation as one of the Bundesliga’s star players, following an influential spell at RB Leipzig that brought with it 17 goals and 15 assists in 71 appearances.

Keita was literally handed Steven Gerrard’s No. 8 shirt by the man himself and he was expected to be the central midfield force Liverpool were missing, bringing guile and dribbling ability in central areas.

But the 26-year-old’s struggles have been well-documented since, with only 77 appearances made in three years and both injury problems and patchy form working hindering him.

However, there is a feeling – you may call it false hope – that this season could finally see Keita emerge as a genuine key man, especially if no further midfielders arrive after Gini Wijnaldum‘s exit.

 

Keita fills the Wijnaldum void

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 8, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Anfield. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

With Jordan Henderson and Thiago still not ready to feature after late summer returns, Keita was handed an opportunity on the opening day at Norwich.

After a productive pre-season and a clean bill of health, the Guinean took his chance with aplomb, proving to be Liverpool‘s most effective midfielder.

James Milner did a job in his less familiar holding role, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggled to make an impact, but Keita did his job quietly and impressively in a routine 3-0 win.

He completed 95 percent of his passes – 41 out of 43, the fourth-most of any Liverpool player – and created one big chance with a lovely dinked pass to Trent Alexander-Arnold, showcasing his vision.

Keita also won six out of seven tackles – more than any other player – pressing an increasingly powerless Norwich side and dovetailing effectively in a left-sided trio along with Kostas Tsimikas and Sadio Mane.

It was a performance that was akin to that of Wijnaldum in its understated brilliance, and this is where the general perception of Keita must now change.

When he signed, his band of loyal Bundesliga and YouTube enthusiasts raved about this creative magician who had shades of Andres Iniesta about him.

Those who didn’t know much about him believed every word they heard and every clip they watched.

Keita’s low centre of gravity, ability to dribble at pace and spatial awareness made it easy to draw comparisons with the Barcelona legend.

But these were Keita’s ‘best bits’, rather than a more rounded look at him as a footballer, and it has worked against him ever since.

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA - Thursday, July 29, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Hertha BSC at the Tivoli Stadion. Liverpool lost 4-3. (Pic by Jürgen Faichter/Propaganda)

There is an argument to say that he was more expansive at Leipzig than Liverpool – he had just over a one-in-four goal-per-game ratio there, compared to one-in-11 with the Reds – but his mastery was perhaps still over-egged.

The Keita we are now seeing is the player Klopp wants him and all of his midfielders to be – key cogs in the machine, often doing selfless work that will go under the radar while others get the headlines.

That is precisely what made Wijnaldum so invaluable, and underrated, and there is a sense that Keita could now suffer similarly.

If he continues to be judged against that stepover-making, dribbling machine on show in compilations, he will forever be seen as a disappointment.

Instead, we as fans must appreciate his subtleness, whether it be his ball retention, off-the-ball work or intelligence in tight areas.

 

Jury still out?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 8, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It would be wrong to hail Keita as the saviour of Liverpool‘s midfield after one good league performance, though, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done.

Liverpool‘s No. 8 has had spells of good form in the past, superb during the back end of the 2018/19 season, scoring three times in the space of six matches, but injuries have too often got in the way.

Promisingly, the work of head of recovery and performance Dr Andreas Schlumberger appears to be paying off, but there is always a nagging feeling that a fresh fitness issue will arrive, most likely when he’s away on international duty.

It has happened too many times not to feel that way, negative though it may sound, with Keita yet to start more than 16 Premier League games in a season.

Not only that, but he doesn’t yet justify a place in what looks like Liverpool‘s strongest midfield on paper: Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago.

NORWICH, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 14, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita (L) during the FA Premier League match between Norwich City FC and Liverpool FC at Carrow Road. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

For Keita to oust any of those three, he needs to string together a genuinely formidable, consistent run of performances, giving Klopp a decision to make in the process.

As things stand, he is playing well, will likely start Saturday’s visit of Burnley and may take some shifting, but the onus is on him to prove his doubters wrong in the long term.

There has been so much focus on Liverpool signing a Wijnaldum replacement this summer, but the Reds could already have him in their ranks.

Keita might not be exactly the same player as the Dutchman – less physically dominant, silkier on the ball – but he has some similar attributes that should allow him to finally excel if he stays fit, like Wijnaldum always did.

He is averaging a paltry 25.3 appearances per season in a Liverpool shirt, but must now start edging closer to Wijnaldum’s hugely dependable average of 47.4.

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA - Thursday, July 29, 2021: Liverpool's Naby Keita (R) is tackled by Hertha BSC’s Suat Serdar during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and Hertha BSC at the Tivoli Stadion. (Pic by Jürgen Faichter/Propaganda)

There will hopefully still be moments of individual brilliance from Keita, so it would be remiss that say that all creativity will disappear from his game.

But if he is judged solely as the player he actually is, without all those expectations, he could quickly become a much-loved figure.

Keita’s Liverpool career has reached its most important chapter yet and he must back up his early-season promise, with supporters also needing to assess him in a fairer light.


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