The now 26-year-old’s time at Anfield has been largely stop-start since he joined from RB Leipzig for £52.75 million in the summer of 2018 – having agreed the move in late August 2017 – but, either side of persistent injury issues, the midfielder has made notable contributions to collective successes and shown flashes of the unique attributes he has to offer.
It does, in many ways, feel like we remain at a crossroads in Naby Keïta’s Liverpool career – and, perhaps, his career in general.
He hasn’t featured for the first team since April 6, when he was substituted in the 42nd minute of the Merseysiders’ disappointing 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first-leg defeat at Real Madrid.
The Guinea captain’s starting place that night was reward from Jürgen Klopp for his displays in training, but what followed – individually and collectively – underwhelmed.
On a personal level, there was one eye-catching burst where he darted between several Real opponents on the edge of the box – but little else.
Another of those flashes.
That he didn’t feature in any of 2020/21’s remaining nine matches wasn’t encouraging and was perhaps reflective of how disappointed Klopp was with that display – as well as how strongly the likes of Thiago Alcântara, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum finished the season in midfield.
Now three years into a five-year contract, it does not feel unjust to observe that Keïta’s Anfield career is yet to fully hit its stride.
That is largely because – on so many occasions – it has felt like, just as Keïta has found some form, some rhythm, injury has struck.
The No.8 has made 76 appearances, scored seven goals and registered four assists in his three seasons at the club.
Which speaks volumes, given Liverpool have played 163 competitive matches in that time.
Niggles and more significant injuries have considerably limited his availability and, in all likelihood, won’t have helped those goal and assist stats, either. Consistency is less easily found when games can’t be strung together.
He will, though, still presumably want those numbers to be better.Embed from Getty Images
It is known that Liverpool’s midfield isn’t necessarily the team’s creative hub. Amongst numerous other functions, they perform a crucial defensive-cover and possession-recycling role.
There have been times when Keïta’s unique attributes have come to the fore and expanded the traits on show within the central third.
His ability on the ball to break lines through both driving runs – which can draw in opponents and create space for teammates – and positive passing is a valuable, unique quality.
We need only look at his competitive debut in the opening game of 2018/19, when his driving run and nicely timed pass allowed Andy Robertson to tee up Mohamed Salah’s opener in the 4-0 win over West Ham.
He regularly caught the eye as he started four of the Reds’ opening five Premier League games that season before rotation and injury issues began to reduce his opportunities.
It was in April 2019 when he again began to make his mark – and score some big goals.
The equalising header in the 1-3 win at Southampton – his first goal for the club – then the opener against Porto in the 2-0 Champions League quarter-final first-leg win, and an opportunistic strike just seconds into a 5-0 league win over Huddersfield Town late in the month, all represented big goals in Liverpool’s campaign.
Unfortunately, a season-ending adductor injury followed in the Camp Nou first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.
Another reminder of those persistent fitness concerns. Nonetheless, his contribution to a sixth European Cup and 97-point PL season remained sizeable in terms of quality, if not quantity.
Similar could be said for 2019/20 and the 99-point title-winning year.
His first three goals of his four in that campaign came in the space of 12 crucial days in December 2019. The first in a 0-3 league win at Bournemouth and then the opener in both the 0-2 Champions League group stage victory over his former club RB Salzburg and the 2-1 Club World Cup semi-final success over Monterrey.Embed from Getty Images
Big goals, again. But then came an injury lay-off, again, after he strained a groin in the warmup ahead of the 2-0 win against Sheffield United on the second day of 2020.
He impressed consistently post-lockdown and that form reached its crescendo when he thundered home the first goal in the 5-3 victory over Chelsea on the July night that the Reds lifted the Premier League trophy.
That, unfortunately, remains his most recent competitive Liverpool goal.
2020/21 was more stop than start.
Injuries persisted and that evening in Madrid felt like a missed opportunity. But he could still have so much to offer.
He’s shown that already. Just not often enough.
So, what about that crossroads? It’s one that needs to be made the best of.
It’s easier said than done, but finding a way to again maximise his valuably different skills, while keeping him more consistently fit – even if that means, seemingly counterintuitively, staggering his appearances – would still make him a valuable option within a squad which will continue to be tested in 2021/22.
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