By Sam McGuire, Football Whispers
Liverpool’s pursuit of Naby Keita has dominated the transfer window. The ‘will they or won’t they’ has kept fans of those in red glued to social media throughout the summer months. It appeared as though Ralf Rangnick, Red Bull’s Sporting Director, had kiboshed any potential move. The former manager was adamant Keita would be playing for RB Leipzig during their debut campaign in the Champions League.
But then, in one of the shrewdest moves in a long time, the Merseyside club put together a package which saw them pay a small premium on Keita’s release clause, which becomes active next summer, to ensure they secured his services in advance. Everyone involved, to an extent, got their happy ever after.
Liverpool get their man without having to break the bank, Keita gains valuable experience while playing in the Champions League and the Bundesliga club have their star player for a further 12 months.
Our friends at Football Whispers have looked at why the dynamic box-to-box midfielder is well worth the wait and why Liverpool fans should be delighted he’s going to be plying his trade at Anfield next summer.
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Liverpool make a statement signing
It’s not often Liverpool manage to pip some of Europe’s elite clubs to a player. It’s even rarer to see Liverpool, notorious for overspending, find value for money in a grossly inflated transfer market. But they did just that when Michael Edwards, the club’s Sporting Director, negotiated the deal to bring Keita to England.
The Anfield based club had plenty of opportunities to call off their pursuit of the player and look at alternatives but Jurgen Klopp was adamant he wanted the former Red Bull Salzburg man and he was backed by those higher up. With Keita being a relative unknown before last season, unless you watched the Austrian League, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether he was worth all of the fuss.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest you’d be hard pressed to find a midfielder in the world who is as complete as Keita. Despite being just 22, he’s mature enough to operate in a number of roles without his personal performance suffering and this is no doubt a factor fuelling Klopp’s obsession with him.
When starting as one of the deepest midfielders he’s not naive enough to go chasing after the ball and leave his team exposed. When he’s deployed as a wide midfielder in the 4-2-2-2 system he tucks inside when his teammates are in possession, but when they’re having to defend he’s diligent enough to carry out his defensive responsibilities down the flank. While playing in Austria he was also used as more of an attacking box-to-box midfielder and repaid that faith by scoring 12 goals and assisting a further eight.
Last season for RB Leipzig he was primarily used as one of the two holding midfielders, alongside Diego Demme in the 4-2-2-2 system, but still managed to be involved in 15 goals. However, Keita as a midfielder is much more than goals. As previously mentioned, he’s switched on defensively and during the 2016/17 campaign he averaged 2.6 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per 90 minutes. It shows his reading of the game and how, despite often being outnumbered in the middle third, that he’s able to cover and defend a lot of ground.
He influences proceedings going forward, too. His debut campaign in the Bundesliga saw him complete 1.3 key passes per 90 minutes, more than the likes of Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can while also completing 2.7 dribbles, with Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho both coming close to that with 2.5. It does, however, show how important he will be when it comes to breaking down teams who sit in a low block.
Liverpool are often accused of lacking creative players in deeper areas. Ones who can not only pick a pass to break the defensive lines but ones confident enough to take on the responsibility to attack the opposition and open up space for his teammates. Keita does just that and Liverpool will benefit because of it.
The fact he’s so flexible gives Liverpool a different dimension going forward as well as a tweaked dynamic in the final third. He’s a blend of so many of the players Klopp already has at his disposal and allows the manager to change his system without making any substitutions.
He’s got the skillset and the capabilities to play in all of the midfield positions. His ideal position, however, would probably be the one Gini Wijnaldum held last season as the link player between the defensive third and the attacking third. However, he’d no doubt be just as comfortable and effective in the Adam Lallana role. This gives Klopp a number of selection headaches but it’s an enviable position to be in.
The Reds have a new No.8. The hype is warranted and he’s definitely worth the wait.