By Hani Na’eem – @hani_eem
There is an inherent complexity to football at the professional level that strips the sport from its basic concepts. It becomes rather too simplistic at that point to describe football as a game where two teams try to put the ball in each other’s nets.
Financially and culturally, the stakes have become very high. On a personal and career level from players’ perspectives, the stakes are also soaring.
Enter Naby Keita, a 24-year-old Guinean international making the next big step of his career by joining Liverpool after a year-long wait, following the agreement with his former club RB Leipzig. There are things far bigger than football involved in this for a player of Keita’s life and career background. In an article for Goal, Keita spoke about the uncultured way he played football in the streets of Conakry.
Fast forward to the present, a slow start and limited minutes on the pitch have led people to write him off and suggest he may be on his way this summer. Before his start against Southampton on Friday, Keita had made only 21 appearances in the Premier League for Liverpool this season, and hadn’t featured for the Reds for almost a month. Keita’s direct goal involvement comes in the shape of one goal and one assist this season.
Despite some mediocre performances, it would be harsh and naïve to suggest that Liverpool should cash in on the midfielder.
Returning to my points above, it should become clear why Keita shouldn’t be judged based solely on the football he produced so far with Liverpool. It was quite clear the Guinean had a lot to adapt to in Liverpool aside from football, per se.
The language barrier may be the most obvious one. Most of us remember a video from Liverpool’s pre-season where Jurgen Klopp shakes hands with – and hugs of course – a nervous-looking Keita and asks him about his English. The Guinean could only make a hand gesture to indicate that it’s not the best!
With all that being said, Keita’s performances have also shown promise of a great midfielder despite the criticism he received. The 24-year-old is arguably Liverpool’s most technically gifted midfielder with the ball, and his dribbling ability is exceptional.
Football-wise, it seems that Keita needs only adapt to the more defensive requirements within Klopp’s system. Personally, I can’t think of any other reason why Klopp would play Adam Lallana or even James Milner ahead of him. The Englishmen are veterans who are more used to Klopp’s tireless pressing system and are willing to offer more protection for the backline.
One cannot say in certain terms that Keita will be a regular starter under Klopp next season, but the importance of squad depth has been a hot topic in recent years and surely a player of the Guinean’s quality would at least add excellent squad depth. That alone should be reason enough to refute the ridiculous claims that he should be sold this coming summer.
Many still hold a firm belief that our number eight has much more to offer. He showed impressive tackling and interception capabilities at RB Leipzig, and he had the perfect weighted passes. Those have been shown only in flashes for Liverpool, but he will be eager to improve with time, and the manager will relish the challenge of getting the best out of him.