By Scott Mason – @ScottMason00
In the summer of 2017, Naby Keita was reported to be Jurgen Klopp’s number one transfer target. However, a deal for the Guinean midfielder seemed impossible as RB Leipzig refused to sell their star player.
In the end Liverpool would have to settle for securing a deal that meant the he would join Jurgen Klopp’s squad for the 2018/19 season for a fee depending on the German side’s league finish – it would end up being £52m.
The season long wait for Naby Keita served only to build hype among fans, with many watching him perform in the Bundesliga that season. The player’s shirt number would also increase expectations as he would take the No.8 – and be the first to wear the iconic shirt since former captain and Reds legend Steven Gerrard.
To really assess if Naby Keita has lived up to expectations it is best to view his season in two halves as he played two different roles throughout the season.
Life at Anfield started well for Liverpool’s new man as he would show the Kop exactly what he could bring to the side in his very first game. Keita’s first taste of Premier League football was almost perfect.
The then-23-year-old would start in a midfield three but would often move out wide as an inside left, changing Liverpool’s shape from the 4-3-3 we all know to a 4-2-3-1, a tactic Klopp would use regularly in the first half of the season.
The midfielder’s energy, pressing and effectiveness at opening up opposition midfields was certainly on show in the Reds opening fixture against West Ham. The performance from the new signing – as mentioned before – was almost perfect with only a goal or assist able to top it off.
Keita was key in setting up the sides first goal of the season as his clever ball to Andy Robertson would result in the Scotsman crossing to Mo Salah who would score Liverpool’s first goal of the 4-0 win.
He would follow up his impressive Premier League debut with good displays against Crystal Palace and Brighton. Unfortunately, the opening three games of the season would be his best showings before Christmas. The Guinean started only 11 games out of a possible 27, mainly due to an injury he picked up against Napoli in the Champions League.
While Keita’s individual performances may not have lived up to expectations from August to December, it should be noted that his role in the team was important. Being used as an inside left instead of a central midfielder reduced the effectiveness of the 24-year-old’s best assets.
Out wide, he found it harder to run at the opposition’s midfield to create a goal scoring opportunity. However while this was detrimental to Keita’s personal game, it should be noted that it allowed Liverpool to press higher and quicker with the 4-2-3-1 system.
The second half of the season would prove much better for the dynamic midfielder as Jurgen Klopp would return to his trusted 4-3-3 shape, allowing Keita to play in his preferred central midfield position.
However, it wasn’t until the third match of 2019 where he would start for Liverpool. It would be in this game, against Crystal Palace, that he would pick up his first and only assist of the season.
The No.8 would then start the next three games before – just like in his first half of the season – injuries would limit his playing time. The Guinean national team captain would only play 19 minutes of football from the end of February to the start of April.
After his stint out with an injury, Naby excelled in the centre of midfield where he would score in back to back games against Southampton and FC Porto. The midfielder was beginning to look like his usual self once again and scored another against Huddersfield, taking his total to three goals in five games in the month of April.
Unfortunately, after finally hitting some good form Naby Keita would again pick up an injury, this time against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. This would then rule the midfield maestro for the rest of the season.
Overall, throughout the season the £52m player would only start 23 games out of a possible 52 – a low number for a player with a high price tag. The switch back to a 4-3-3 highlighted his abilities and, despite his lack of game time, when he played you could see he is a difference-maker on the pitch.
It would be fair to say that Keita didn’t have the breakthrough debut season he would have hoped for in England. When he played we could see glimpses of what he was capable of but his end product was lacking. It was only when he was switch back into the centre that we would see how good he could really be.
It was unfortunate that whenever he would find himself in some form he would pick up an injury, that would rule him out for the next couple of games. Staying fit will be key next season for the Guinean as this season showed he performs significantly better when he has a rhythm.
In terms of improvement to his game, Keita could try shooting from range more often, as from his days in Germany it is clear he as the skill set to do so.
Another criticism would probably be that he needs to learn to release the ball sooner to the front three, as there were times that Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah would be one pass away from a golden opportunity but Keita would take an extra touch instead.
Ultimately, it was not a poor season from Naby Keita although it was certainty nothing to rave about. With his first season of English football and a Champions League winner medal under his belt, hopefully he can kick on and become the difference-maker we have all seen he could be.