Naby Keita: Stay Fit and He Will Be a Star in Liverpool’s Midfield

LFC Transfer Room
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High expectations

At the end of the summer transfer window in 2017, Liverpool secured the services of box-to-box midfielder Naby Keita from RB Leipzig in a deal worth £52.75 million. But fans would have to wait another year before seeing Keita in Liverpool red. Leipzig, determined not to be pushovers, would not agree to an immediate sale unless Liverpool paid an astronomical £90million+ fee, so Jurgen Klopp agreed to a deal which meant Keita would join Liverpool a year later than initially hoped.

So there was great anticipation in the weeks and months leading up to Keita’s arrival (perhaps accentuated by the delay). But, two seasons down the line, the midfielder’s performances have been largely hit and miss. And although there have been glimpses of the incisive, high-octane Leipzig midfielder we all drawled over whilst watching his Leipzig highlights reel on Youtube, he has struggled to nail down a regular spot in Jurgen Klopp’s starting eleven.

Before arriving on Merseyside, Keita had spent four years playing for the Red Bull sister clubs. After scoring seventeen goals and registering ten assists in 59 Austrian Bundesliga games at RB Salzburg (2014-16), Leipzig took him to Germany. And in his debut season, he was named in the 16/17 Bundesliga team of the season. Klopp even labelled him the “best in the Bundesliga” in an interview with the Echo shortly after securing his services.

And the accolades kept coming. Keita was then named in the 2018 African Team of the Year, having scored nine goals in his final season at Leipzig. His classy dribbling skills, energy, athleticism and eye for goal made him the ‘complete package’. ‘Complete’ because the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Emre Can or Adam Lallana could only offer what he could in parts.

Stop start

So expectations were high. Extremely high. So much so he was even handed the legendary number 8 shirt worn by Steven Gerrard; a weight on the shoulders of any player, whatever their name, age or portfolio.

He started well at least, delivering a man of the match display on his competitive debut. But a number of minor knocks have hampered both his form and momentum since.

It took him until April 2019 to score his first league goal for the club in a 3-1 win against Southampton and then scored in the Champions League a matter of days later in a 2-0 win over FC Porto. But after finding form again, Keita then picked up an ‘adductor issue’ in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona. His season, as it turned out, was over.

Expectations were again high heading into 19/20. But, like the previous campaign, he’s struggled to nail down a regular starting spot.

But there have, once again, been glimpses. In December, Keita put together a string of starts. In the 3-0 win away at Bournemouth, Keita scored and provided eye-of-a-needle pass to set up Mo Salah. And then, just a matter of days later, he helped secure qualification for the Champions League knockout stages, scoring the opening goal in a 2-0 win over RB Salzburg. Keita also scored the opening goal in the Club World Cup semi-final win over Monterrey as Liverpool went on to become Club World Cup Champions.

For periods of the season, Keita has looked impressive. But the problem is, of course, this: he lacks consistency. He plays well for periods (a matter of three weeks or so), picks up an injury and is then fighting for a return to form. It’s a cycle which seems to have repeated itself over and over again.

Project Restart

As it happens, the cycle’s restarted. Form has been found. Keita looks good. Very good.

Since the resumption of the season, Keita’s been one of Liverpool’s stand-out performers. With a string of starts against Everton, Aston Villa and Brighton, Keita’s found rhythm, and demonstratively, the Midas touch.

Despite a poor team performance in the opening 70 minutes against Aston Villa, Keita found a quality pass to set up Sadio Mané. In the opening ten minutes of the 3-1 win over Brighton, he was a key cog in Liverpool’s high press; the first and second goal a direct result of Keita’s persistence and endeavour.

An injury usually follows, but fingers crossed it doesn’t. Injuries have, thus far, prevented Keita from getting a run of starts in the starting eleven; he has only appeared in forty Premier League games since his arrival out of a possible seventy-three.

The key for Keita going forward next season is consistency. It’s obvious, but when he’s injury-free, Keita rarely fails to demonstrate his quality. The midfielders has all the attributes to be a huge success – he just needs to stay fit.

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