The Guinea midfielder looked sharp as 2019 came to a close and Reds fans will be hoping the 24-year-old continues his impressive form
“Sharp? Mate, he looks unbelievable!”
Naby Keita was less than a week into his Liverpool career when Joe Gomez offered that wide-eyed assessment of his new team-mate.
Footballers tend to know a player when they see one, and it only took a handful of training sessions for Keita to make his presence felt at Melwood.
“He looks good,” agreed Jurgen Klopp after a friendly win over Chester a day or two later. “It all looks kind of natural, which is good.”
That was in the middle of 2018. Yet here we are at the start of 2020 and, if we are to be brutally honest, we are yet to see what Keita is fully capable of in a Liverpool shirt.
Could this be the Guinean’s year? The recent signs have been promising, with the 24-year-old delivering a number of high-level performances in key games for Klopp’s side.
There have been goals, important ones too, there have been tackles and passes, intelligent pressing and that unique, short-burst dribbling that sets Keita aside from so many of his midfield peers.
More importantly though, there have been opportunities. There has been responsibility and trust placed in him. If August and September were ruined by injury, and if October and November were quiet, December was the month when Keita came out of the shadows again. Liverpool looked all the better for it, too.
“There was never a doubt about his quality,” Klopp said after an eye-catching performance at Bournemouth on December 7. Keita had scored one goal and assisted another as Liverpool won 3-0 at the Vitality Stadium, and afterwards his manager offered an insight into the £53 million man’s mindset after a difficult start to the campaign.
“When you see a player like this you ask why he is not playing week in, week out?” Klopp said.
“Naby is sitting outside, he’s not been playing. I get that. So we stayed in contact, we talked and we spoke a lot about it, but in the end of course the player needs to have this evidence that the coach or the manager still believes in you.”
That ‘evidence’ has arrived. Three days after Bournemouth, Keita started in Salzburg in Liverpool’s decisive Champions League group game. It was a high-stakes match in which he produced a high-class performance, scoring the Reds’ crucial opening goal in the process. He followed that up with a pair of effervescent displays – and another goal – at the Club World Cup in Qatar, and then added perhaps his best all-round showing since joining Liverpool in the 4-0 win at Leicester on Boxing Day. “He looked like the player we were told we were getting,” said one ex-Reds star after that game at the King Power.
Perhaps that comment tells us why Keita’s ‘impact’ on Merseyside has been seen as underwhelming.
Certainly, he arrived with big expectations after two impressive seasons with RB Leipzig. Klopp described him as, along with Bayern Munich star Thiago Alcantara, “the best player in the Bundesliga by far” and claimed he had received more congratulatory phone calls about the Keita signing than he could remember.
Meanwhile, journalists and analysts who had watched the player closely in Germany, and before that in Austria with Salzburg, spoke of a midfielder that could boast a genuinely unique skillset. He had defensive aggression, attacking instinct and everything in between. “He could make it at any club in the world,” said Ralph Hasenhuttl, his coach at Leipzig. “The lad’s just that good.”
Liverpool fans will hope, as Klopp will, that Keita can stay free of the muscle injuries which dogged his first 12 months on Merseyside, and which meant he completed 90 minutes just six times in his maiden campaign, missing the Champions League final in the process. “He was unlucky and in life you need luck always,” said Klopp.
If that luck comes, don’t bet against him making a big impact in the second half of the campaign. “He’s a very good player,” says Virgil van Dijk. “I am sure he will do something special here,” added Sadio Mane, while James Milner has remarked: “I’ve seen him get out of some ridiculous situations in training. Sources at Melwood say that Keita is the one player, above all others, who regularly takes the breath away in practice matches.
Now, the challenge is consistency. Consistency, fitness and form will bring with it success, for both player and team.
Having spent much of 2019 on the fringes, could 2020 be the year we see the real Naby Keita?
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