What Naby Keita is already bringing to Liverpool
What would happen if you put a turbocharged, 6.2l, V-8 Corvette engine into a Rolls-Royce? Stop imagining about a priapic Jeremy Clarkson in his jeans for a minute and think.
The engine and the car are both brilliant, but put them together and you’d ruin two previously beautiful, almost graceful machines. There would be too much power, the Roller wouldn’t corner properly and it would be too noisy by half. It would lose everything that made it great.
This summer, however, Jurgen Klopp couldn’t wait to take delivery of exactly that. And he paid £52m for it. Originally signed in July 2017 from RB Leipzig, Guinea midfielder Keita has the poise of a showjumping horse, with the thrust of a Derby winner. The Liverpool boss knew he desperately needed midfield legs, especially after losing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the season.
What immediately strikes you is Keita’s economy of movement. He almost never sprints. The 23-year-old's modus operandi is to offer short and to feet, constantly checking both shoulders on the half turn. He resembles a jogging Michael Johnson, the five-time Olympic gold medallist and former 200m and 400m world record holder, in that he has a very upright gait, his elbows almost pinned to his body.
He somehow manages to look like he doesn’t move much, while simultaneously covering every blade of grass; a sort of footballing Keyser Soze convincing the world he didn’t exist.
On the seldom occasions that Keita does break into a sprint, that stocky gait doesn’t change. No long strides, just a very quick waddle. Imagine athletes in the Olympic racewalking and you’re not far off.
Quiet at the beginning of the game, Keita felt his way into a first Premier League away encounter at one of England’s tightest grounds. Ten minutes in, however, he demonstrated why Klopp made the buy. He eased into James McArthur to win the ball, slipped past Jeff Schlupp and fed Roberto Firmino to start an attack which he went on to back up. Simple, yet very effective.
Just over 10 minutes later, he went one better. With keeper Alisson playing short, Keita received the ball under extreme pressure from Andros Townsend. In one motion, like a souped-up ballet dancer, he turned and surged towards the centre-circle, chipping an exquisite ball over the top of the defence to Mo Salah. The only surprise was Liverpool’s Egyptian King looping his shot over the bar.
If good players always seem to have time on the ball, then Keita could write a symphony, paint an impressionist masterpiece and perform complex thoracic surgery in the time it takes most central midfielders to just play a five-yard square pass.
He was no less effective in the second half. On the end of a typically Kloppian counterattack, Keita ran the length of the field to scuff a shot wide inside the first five minutes.
He’s capable of tonal shifts, too, increasing his natural larghetto into something more allegro – or even quicker – if the moment so takes him. Moments after that shot early in the second half, he carried the ball from inside his own half to the edge of the Palace penalty area without breaking sweat and only marginally elongating his stride to win a corner.
As the Reds looked to see out the game, Keita the destroyer was in his element. It was for these situations, in particular, that Klopp wanted the midfielder. Countless times Keita robbed the ball and played it simple, neutralising any Palace attack and easing pressure on the Liverpool back four. No Reds player made more tackles than Keita’s five.
Cool, calm, collected
Playing to the left of centre, he already combines well with Andy Robertson immediately outside him and Sadio Mané further forward. Keita started a number of Liverpool breaks – one of which led to Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s red card for fouling a clean-through Mo Salah – as they sought to secure a second goal to kill off Crystal Palace’s spirited resistance.
This is exactly the sort of game where Liverpool have dropped points from a winning position in the past, but with Keita in front of the defence, the Reds look much more resilient and, crucially, less panicked.
Virgil van Dijk will rightly receive plaudits for marshalling a back four with more steel than ever before – especially against the awkward Christian Benteke – but in front of the Dutchman there’s Keita, who might just be the signing of the summer. Leicester and Chelsea won the league with two-in-one N’Golo Kante as their beating heart, and now Liverpool might just have their own multi-functional midfield destroyer.
“Naby is a very shy person,” Klopp said at full time, alluding to the fact that Keita and Mané are virtually joined at the hip. “Football-wise, you can see the potential is outstanding. But we have to give him time. Defensively, you see it, very stable in the tackle. Tactically, he can improve – he has to improve, actually.”
It wasn’t all perfect. A couple of times, Keita was sloppy in possession, once gifting Benteke a chance to run at Liverpool’s back four, but just imagine what he’ll be like once he’s fully integrated. Cool, calm and a natural leader, it’s frightening that he is only 23.
There’s more to come from Liverpool’s Corvette in a Rolls-Royce dress. A lot more.