Naby Keïta has endured a frustrating two years at Liverpool.
That’s not to say his spell at the club so far hasn’t been successful; a Champions League and a Premier League winner’s medal isn’t a bad return after just 24 months with a club. However, his influence on the team certainly hasn’t been as great as he, or many fans, would have hoped when he accepted Liverpool’s famous number eight shirt, previously worn by Steven Gerrard no less, back in 2018.
However, that could all be about to change.
Liverpool will look to defend their Premier League crown next season – something only one team has successfully done in the past 11 years. It may seem odd that only Manchester City have retained the title in over a decade, yet, there’s a reason back-to-back coronations are such a rarity.
When a team turns from challengers to champions, they become the league’s golden goose – the side everyone wants to beat. This forces the champions to adapt or risk becoming predictable and easy to read.
In Keïta, Liverpool have the variety of midfielder to avoid becoming one dimensional.
The Reds’ biggest asset is undoubtedly their wide play. The width and movement of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané have become a feature of Jürgen Klopp’s side’s play, while full backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have a combined 20 assists this season. However, such is the electric pace and threat of the wide options, teams are beginning to sit deeper and deeper against Liverpool – specifically when visiting Anfield – and this is only going to continue now they’ve been crowned champions of England.
The club’s recent win over Aston Villa was a perfect example of this, with the visitors spending large periods of the game soaking up the Liverpool pressure before Keïta’s incredible eye-of-the-needle pass unlocked the Villa defence, allowing Mané to open the scoring.
Despite the 2-0 win, the home side mustered just one shot on target in the opening 70 minutes, as Villa looked to sit deep and invite pressure before springing a counter-attacking.
The upside of this quandary is there’ll be more room in front of the opposition as they retreat back to their own goal, and the best man to exploit that space in the Liverpool midfield is Keïta.
While each of Klopp’s midfield men possess their own individual qualities – whether it be breaking up play or spraying long diagonals around the pitch – Keïta’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his ball-carrying ability.
The former RB Leipzig man has a low centre of gravity and possesses a good turn of pace to be able to easily manoeuvre himself away from challenges. His time in the Bundesliga saw him become synonymous with incisive, darting runs from the midfield, breaking the lines of opposition sides who were looking to keep a rigid shape and perhaps nick a late winner.
Another aspect of Keïta’s game which could become hugely important in Liverpool’s future success is his eye for goal. The 25-year-old arrived at Anfield with a record of 37 goals in 152 senior appearances, yet has scored just six in 55 games for Liverpool.
The Reds’ over-reliance on their front three could ultimately become their downfall. With no backup of a similar calibre and the club unwilling to splash out on players such as Timo Werner in an attempt to bolster their attacking options, injuries could see Klopp’s side lose a huge portion of their goals.
If Keïta can rediscover his goalscoring touch, the club’s dependency on Salah and Mané (with Roberto Firmino without a Premier League goal since January) could be hugely reduced.
In truth, Klopp’s style of play doesn’t really suit the Guinea international – if anything Keïta’s ability to carry the ball slows down the rapid Liverpool break. However, as the club look to defend their Premier League crown, Klopp will know his side need to display variety as teams attempt to stifle their attacking threat, and Keïta could be the ‘plan B’ Liverpool need.