Liverpool’s signing of Naby Keita came some months before the start of the 2018 summer transfer window. It was a sign of how excited the club was to get the midfielder involved. There was an expectation of how he would replicate his RB Leipzig form at Liverpool. But about two years on, things haven’t exactly gone to plan.
Injuries haven’t really helped him. He’s missed 23 games due to injury at Anfield, making it a rather stop-start stint so far for the Guinean. But his issues are not just limited to that. It is more about the sort of player he is and what exactly Liverpool demand.
At Leipzig in the club’s 4-2-2-2 shape, Keita played a key role in a side that wasn’t as good as Liverpool. In his last season, he had a hand in 11 goals in the Bundesliga and did well in linking the midfield with attack with his ability in the ball and penetration.
Over two seasons at Liverpool, he’s contributed to five goals. His passing and tendency to get the ball and move forward is something different to what others provide. And that is something which hasn’t been helping him at all.
The three options Liverpool have in central midfield are Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum. All three of them are workhorse midfielders. But Keita has played 66.8 passes per game for the side and that is around ten more than any other Liverpool midfielder.
Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner aren’t the best of creative midfielders. They win tackles, hassle the opposition and lay it off for the full-backs. The likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson use their crossing and ability to get forward and create goals.
That’s why Robertson has contributed to eight goals and Alexander-Arnold has contributed to 14 goals. It shows that the club’s creation comes from wide instead of the central areas. The midfielders are meant to keep it tight and win it and recycle it wide.
Keita isn’t someone who fits that sort of a style. At Leipzig, the narrow 4-2-2-2 shape emphasised on creation from central areas as there’s no wide player bar the full-backs. It made Keita dictate things, score and assist.
In that sense, the system at Liverpool doesn’t really suit Keita. He does make an impact when Jurgen Klopp’s men look to attack and breakdown defences. But that doesn’t happen too often, considering how the season has gone for them. And due to that, Keita doesn’t get to play as much as he should.
For a player who is worth £48 million, that probably isn’t enough. That doesn’t mean that Keita isn’t good enough defensively. He has won 1.8 tackles per game in the Premier League and having played in a double-pivot in the past, he knows that trade. But his ability on the ball often goes waste in the system at Anfield.
If not for injuries, he could have been tested more and he would have got more time to settle in. But that hasn’t helped and it is letting Keita down on a consistent basis.
The ability is certainly there- it was always there. But the suitability has come down for both parties involved. There is every chance he still makes a bigger impact but time is running out for him and it needs to change fast.