By Lewis Rooke – @LV_Rooke
The pursuit of RB Leipzig’s mercurial midfielder Naby Keita seemed to go on for what seemed like an eternity.
In the transfer windows of 2017 – both winter and summer – the “will he, won’t he” pendulum swung repeatedly back and forth, leaving eager Liverpool fans permanently fixed on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the arrival of the reportedly exciting, forward-thinking Guinean.
So when the transfer was actually confirmed, the thought of fans indulging in their lung-busting midfield maestro cravings were put on hold, as it was agreed Keita would stay at Leipzig for the following season. The excitement to see the Bundesliga star in red built immeasurably over the year when he was technically theirs, but he was really ours.
Yet, when the long-awaited moment to see Keita take to the Anfield pitch arrived, he hasn’t been able to truly seize it. As the games tick away in this already storied Premier League season, full matches seem to pass the Guinean by as he has found himself unable to really stamp his authority at any point. Arguably, Keita has been poor.
Amidst the excitement of his arrival at Anfield, coupled with the buzz around marquee signing of Monaco’s Fabinho, there was one man who was being pushed further and further towards the periphery – Gini Wijnaldum.
The Dutchman appeared to be the most susceptible to make way for the all new and shiny ‘Nab and Fab’ midfield duo, with the new men destined to take over the Premier League. Transfer rumours were rife for the former PSV man, with a potential move to Turkey on the cards should he feel the need to exit for more game time.
In the lead up to the infamous Champions League final of 2018, Wijnaldum only found himself in the first team by proxy of an injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the uncertain future of the wantaway Emre Can. Without this path to the starting eleven, it was probable the Dutchman would have left Anfield that summer.
Yet strangely, and to the bemusement of many, Wijnaldum remained in the team at the start of the season – keeping Fabinho firmly on the fringes and restricting Keita to sporadic starts, but this time it was no fluke or chance.
Wijnaldum this season has elevated his game to new levels. In recent months he has become head and shoulders the strongest midfielder at the club. Blessed with an unrivalled calmness under pressure in possession, as well as the ability to drive into attacking positions to support the front line combined with an astute defensive sense – the Dutchman has become everything fans thought Naby Keita was going to be when he signed.
The reports from Bundesliga experts were glowing over the Guinean. Liverpool fans were promised an all-action dynamo who was able to carry the ball through the lines as well as possessing a Jurgen Klopp-tailored tactical discipline in the press. Attributes now in hindsight all applicable to Gini Wijnaldum to the letter.
Maybe Naby Keita’s time will come in a Liverpool shirt, the Jurgen Klopp-way is no easy method to master, and it is rare that midfielders take to it like a duck to water. With luck, he can follow Wijnaldum’s evolution to become a crucial cog in the Klopp machine in coming seasons.
But for now at least, it’s the Dutchman who is leading the midfield cavalry in the Premier League title charge after overcoming his own adversity, and long may it continue.