On Tuesday night, Liverpool were put to the sword by an excellent Real Madrid performance in the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. It was a tough night for the whole team, but none more so than Naby Keita – forty-two minutes is all he managed before his manager decided he’d seen enough and hauled him off, not even giving him until half-time for a more low-key substitution.
The Liverpool midfield was outclassed in the first half. They struggled to find any rhythm and allowed Kroos and Modric too much space to dictate the tempo. Keita looked lost and out of sorts. The lack of game time was evident and Jurgen Klopp’s decision to start him ahead of Thiago has been questioned. Keita’s fitness has been a running cause of concern, and he will have to prove his quality and availability in this seasons closing weeks.
Since January, Keita has been following a structured plan to help him work on his fitness issues which have blighted his Anfield career. Dr Andreas Schlumberger was brought in to the club in December as the Head of Recovery and Performance and is reportedly working alongside Keita to prevent further injuries on his return. With only 141 minutes in 2021, Klopp and his team have been careful with how they have used the Guinea international.
The excitement around his signing was big in 2017. Keita was coming off the back of an appearance in the Bundesliga and Europa League Team of the Season. An exciting midfielder who possesses very different attributes to those at the club then and now.
His dribbling and short passing are stand out parts of his game and his playstyle perfectly suits a three in midfield. Averaging 90% completion on short/medium range passes and 78% dribble completion in the past two seasons which is the second highest of Liverpool players with over ten games played.
With Keita, Liverpool has a fantastic option, particularly on the left of a three. He suits a certain type of game and one which Liverpool face quite a lot. A low block versus teams in the bottom half of the table. Keita’s ability and style can help break these teams down rather than a Wijnaldum or Henderson. He can be quite elusive at times.
One downside to his game is how easily dribbled past he is and his work off the ball. Although it’s not his game, it can be costly to the team, and the match against Madrid was a good example of that. Often praised for his pressing, Keita struggled to get close to his opponents. His tackling success of just 9.5% in all competitions is far behind the likes of Thiago, Wijnaldum and Henderson.
To many people who don’t watch Liverpool regularly, it would be understandable to judge Keita quite harshly. A big-money signing and three years later isn’t a starter or even the first substitute in midfield when Klopp has his full array of options. The emergence of Curtis Jones this season will also cast doubts on Keita’s role going forward.
At the highest level, consistency is an important trait. Players need to be consistently performing to a good standard and be consistently available. That’s how Liverpool have had so much success in recent years. Players with amazing ability have often fallen by the wayside due to a lack of consistent performances. Keita might be one of those players, whether it is a fault of his own or not.
With so many injuries this season, Liverpool have found it hard to nail down a regular XI. Keita’s issues haven’t helped that problem. He has only appeared 33% of league games. However, his quality when fit will be hard to replace. The Liverpool board are very smart with their transfer dealings, and to recruit someone of similar quality who won’t be a guaranteed starter will be tough and will cost a lot of money.
Klopp and his team like him, previously describing him as “the complete midfielder”. His glimpses of quality are enough to keep them onside. However, if Keita continues to be unreliable due to injury or performance, this summer might be time to move on. There is evidence to show his quality as a player, but Liverpool needs more.