Naby Keïta arrived at Liverpool with a lot of promise, but a series of injuries have hampered his progression. Ben Webb believes now is the time for Keïta to step up and become the player fans know he can be.
As Jordan Henderson limped off in the midweek European showdown with Atletico Madrid, many, including myself, were fearful of just how long the talismanic captain could be absent for, and the detrimental effect it may have on the team.
It turns out it’ll only be three weeks – as confirmed by Jurgen Klopp – but his absence has unwittingly created an opportunity for someone to rise to the occasion and give Klopp some future team selection headaches.
Arise, Naby Keïta: the ideal candidate to fill the Henderson-shaped void. He’s been presented with the perfect scenario to rejuvenate his Liverpool career and rediscover the kind of form that saw him voted the Bundesliga’s second-best player.
It’s fair to say most Liverpool fans knew just how good a player Keïta was at RB Leipzig when we signed him. Renowned for aggressively snatching possession; drifting past players, leaving them standing like statues in his wake; creating goal-scoring opportunities and hammering the ball home, as if he was purposely intent on trying to break the net.
He’s capable of making the spectacular look ordinary. It’s there. It’s all there. We just need to see it on a regular basis, and there’s no better time than the present.
Keïta offered a different dimension to Liverpool’s (then) midfield – that something special to turn the tide of a game – hence the level of excitement and anticipation upon his arrival. If our midfield was a car, Keïta was supposed to be the turbocharger – and he still can be. I genuinely believed he would progress into one of, if not the, best midfielder in the Premier League, and still think, given the right conditions, that can come to fruition.
To say Keïta’s time at Liverpool has been lacklustre would be harsh in my opinion, due to his constant battle with injuries and maintaining a consistent level of fitness. He’s missed a combined 151 days through injury, equating to 23 missed games for Liverpool, all while attempting to adapt to a new strategy, with new players, in a new league.
It’s no surprise he’s struggled to impose his dominance, although there were positive signs when he played consistently last season. He’s only appeared 12 times in the Premier League and Champions League this season, and only made the starting-eleven in half of those.
However, that could all be about to change with Henderson’s absence from the next six games which Keïta could potentially play in. These include an FA Cup tie with Chelsea, the significant second-leg clash with Atletico, and the small matter of a Merseyside derby.
Henderson’s performances have personified Klopp’s work ethic and the squad’s mentality – 100% work rate, guile, intensity, desire and unrivalled will to win, regardless of the opposition. No easy act to follow, but this squad seems to make light work of rotation and changes in personnel – and Keïta could be the next in line to flourish.
Although Keïta isn’t a like-for-like replacement, he will offer different attributes that could prove just as influential over the overall performance. For instance, some argue that our midfield (albeit brilliant) could offer more offensively, and that’s an area the Guinean dynamo can no doubt improve.
He’s not scared to look for the obscure pass, he’ll break the lines, link with the attack, and has the ability to dribble past multiple players. All facets of his game will benefit this team, especially when facing defensively-minded opposition.
It’s not overly optimistic to expect Keïta to drop straight into the team and instantly thrive. He’s regularly shown flashes of utter brilliance: for example, the clever one-two which Keïta both initiated and converted from a sublime back-heeled pass from Salah against Bournemouth. Or even last season versus Huddersfield, where Keïta relentlessly pressed their defence from the get-go, stealing the ball from under their noses and finishing another Salah assist – all within fourteen-seconds.
Nutmegging two players, one after the other. Sending Townsend for the Echo and finding Salah with pinpoint accuracy. He’s capable of making the spectacular look ordinary. It’s there. It’s all there. We just need to see it on a regular basis, and there’s no better time than the present.
It’s time for Keïta to emerge as the player we thought we’d signed and stake his claim for a starting spot. If selected, I can envisage a trio of Keïta, Fabinho and Wijnaldum. They would have such diversity, and be versatile enough to enable Keïta to fully express himself.
Fabinho has all the defensive qualities you could desire, Wijnaldum retains possession for fun, and Keïta can break the lines and support the front-three. Not to discount the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Takumi Minamino and James Milner, all of whom could also play.
Of all of Klopp’s big-money signings, you could argue Keïta is the one player who hasn’t progressed – or, at least not as significantly as others – but I fully trust Klopp’s judgement and still think Keïta has so much more to offer. Given the right circumstances, he will go from strength to strength and exceed expectations. Time to cause havoc, Naby.