During Liverpool’s FA Cup third round defeat away at Wolves, there was a rare piece of top class quality which stuck out like a sore thumb on a dismal day for the visitors. Guinea internal Naby Keita picked the ball up and with men crowding him, he duly side stepped his markers, with expert control and balance, before releasing a 20 yard pass to the Daniel Sturridge, who would have been in on goal had a hasty linesman not flagged for offside.
The travelling Liverpool contingent would have hoped to see that piece of wonderful class, spur on their number eight, who was looking to impress Jurgen Klopp after a jittery start to his career on Merseyside. Frustratingly though, the Guinean slipped back into anonymity and put in a performance that bore all the hallmarks of a player lacking the confidence to use his abilities to their full potential.
With the Reds currently unable to shake off a determined Man City, who sit just four points behind them, they will need everything in their armory to get them over the line in this season’s title race. That includes their £54 million summer signing, who really must start to turn his form around for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
Promise and problems
Part of the problem, is that Keita’s performances haven’t actually been that bad for Liverpool. When he has played recently though, there has been a tendency for games to pass him by, and sloppiness has crept in, and he was guilty of giving the ball away far too often away at Brighton recently.
However, his early season form bore plenty of promising signs that he could be a bombastic link up player, breaking the lines from Liverpool’s second three and linking up to deadly effect with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
His performances against West Ham, Crystal Palace and Spurs, had many Liverpool fans purring. The club had worked tirelessly to prize their man away from RB Leipzig, and actually agreed his transfer in August 2017 after a number of false starts in their negotiations with the German club. The hope was, they were now seeing the fruits of the labours in the transfer market.
On the surface, he looked a natural fit to bolster Liverpool’s midfield. His pace, energy and natural ball control, made him an ideal component for Klopp’s high intensity press. While his eye for a pass, and willingness to dribble, meant he could contribute massively to the Red’s ferocious attacking play.
A horribly timed injury in October lead to a dramatic dip in form, and he’s since been relegated to a fringe player and struggled to work his way back into first-team contention. With Klopp currently preferring a combination of James Milner, Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson, his big money signing has had to be content with only sporadic appearances and glimpses of his quality.
Nine starts in the Premier League, tells you all you need to know about his current status in Klopp’s rankings. Against Palace last Saturday Liverpool needed so much more from their midfield man. Safe passes and hesitancy on the ball are not what his club needs, with every win crucial between now and the end of the season; they need him to start delivering.
We are now at that stage of the season, when teams start to get injuries and little niggles can become costly. Liverpool’s form has been excellent so far, but Klopp’s game is arguably the most demanding on it’s players fitness in Europe. He is going to need every member of his first team ready to contribute and perform when called upon, as fatigue begins to bite.
Some Reds fans have naively pointed with excitement to training shots of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, looking sharp and fit. Reports are, he is doing well, but it would be crazy to think he could be thrown in any time soon, given the severity of his knee injury back in April.
It’s the same story with Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho. Niggles and pulls have seen both players occupy the treatment table recently, while Henderson’s fitness track record is not the best. They will need to be managed and rotated.
Keita has the quality to make a big impact, but with each game becoming more and more massive this season, it’s vital he quickly starts to show what he can do. A first Premier League assist last weekend against Palace is a start, but Liverpool fans will really hope they can see more of that early season quality in these crucial remaining weeks and months of the season. He has the ability to dominate games and the time is now for him to start justifying all the hype.