The Guinea international midfielder was impressive for the Reds at Burnley and is set to play a big part for Jurgen Klopp’s men over Christmas
It was the kind of performance Liverpool had been told about for a year or more.
Sharp, energetic, classy, ambitious and threatening, Naby Keita at Burnley was the Naby Keita the Reds wanted, the one they pursued with such conviction, the one Jurgen Klopp is convinced can become one of the best around.
Liverpool’s win at Turf Moor was the bottom line, a crucial three points which keeps them on the tails of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League. They can, in fact, reach the summit with a win at Bournemouth on Saturday lunchtime.
But how encouraging, for Klopp and for his supporters, to see Keita sparkling amid the Lancashire gloom. It felt like the start of something. Something good.
“Naby made all the difference,” Klopp said after Wednesday’s game, revealing he had admonished his players for ignoring the Guinea international and hitting long balls too often in the first half.
“I was shouting but I was not angry,” he said. “I was shouting that we had to use Naby!”
Liverpool certainly used him after the break, and to good effect. This was the 23-year-old’s first Premier League start since mid-September, but he looked right at home in the heat of the battle. Aggression, yes, but also control and quality on the ball.
“You can see already that he’s a fantastic player,” said Jordan Henderson afterwards. “I thought tonight he was outstanding.
“You can see how good he is on the ball, how comfortable he is; driving with the ball forward, which is important for us. I think he’ll go from strength to strength as he gets more games and experience.”
Keita finished Wednesday’s game with the best passing accuracy (93 per cent) of any player, and with the most possession regains (10). Only Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, his centre-backs, attempted more than his dozen duels, only James Milner and Xherdan Shaqiri covered more distance over the 90 minutes.
Then there was the attacking side. Keita had six shots on goal, four of them on target. He forced the save of the match from Joe Hart, who turned his 25-yard howitzer onto the post, and was denied three times – once by Hart, twice by desperate blocks from defenders – in the space of 10 seconds as Liverpool opened up in the final half hour.
It was, in Henderson’s words, “an all-round performance” from the No.8.
A significant one, too. Klopp can now reflect on the fact that, over the past week or so, all four of his summer signings have shown their worth in different ways.
Alisson Becker has made crucial saves and started attacks, Fabinho performed well in the cut and thrust of a Merseyside derby, Shaqiri is starting games and scoring goals, and now Keita has come to the party.
Klopp’s aim was to bring depth as well as quality, and Liverpool look better in that regard than they have for quite some time. That they were able to make seven changes and still win at Burnley underlines the fact.
The excitement surrounding Keita’s signing, in particular, was clear. It was, in fact, shared by Klopp, who privately could barely believe his club had been able to land such a talent. “If you asked me what his biggest strength was, I couldn’t say it really,” he said in the summer. “We all have no clue how good he can be.”
Those who observed his time with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga will recognise the performance at Burnley, the manner in which his first touch took him forward, the way he manoeuvred his way past defenders and drove into space with speed and aggression.
Not many players are compared to Andres Iniesta AND N’Golo Kante, but Keita’s skillset is a pretty unique one among midfielders, and while Liverpool have a lot of solid, experienced midfield options, they have few that can change the dynamic of a game with a dribble or a drive from deep. Keita, by the way, can pass the ball as well as win it and carry it.
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Now, the hope is that he can build on Wednesday’s showing. He had made a promising enough start until a back problem sustained at Napoli – his last start for the club prior to Wednesday – set him back. A hamstring injury suffered playing for Guinea against Rwanda soon after didn’t help matters.
He is back now though, and at a useful time too. The Reds have huge games coming up, with Bournemouth, Napoli, Manchester United, Wolves, Newcastle and Arsenal before the turn of the year, and a trip to Manchester City to start 2019. “We’re going to need everybody to play their part,” Henderson said.
On the evidence of this week, Keita’s ‘part’ is likely to grow and grow. Liverpool waited a long time for their £53 million man. It is time the rest of the Premier League saw what all the fuss is about.