What happened to Naby Keita? Liverpool’s two players in one who has too often turned into none
It was exactly the type of fixture he pretended to play in while dodging cars with the ball magnetised to his feet on the streets of Koleya, in Guinea’s capital Conakry.
It was the kind of game Frederic Arpinon, the former sporting director of FC Istres, was certain he would go on to decide.
It was the sort of stage RB Leipzig believed he’d make the difference in, forcing Liverpool to pay a premium for him.
Yet Naby Keita was hooked on 42 minutes in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid.
That he was selected in the starting XI spoke volumes about how he had been performing in training. More significantly, it underscored Jurgen Klopp’s faith in him to cause discomfort to Zinedine Zidane’s midfield and be a core part of Liverpool’s gameplan.
There was credence in that thinking: Keita’s intensity off the ball is excellent, he is the club’s best in the centre of the pitch for pressure success and has the most touches in the box, acting as one of their premier chance creators.
He has featured in the Premier League’s top 10 midfielders for recoveries, tackles and is in the upper 15 per cent for shot-creating actions.
Keita hardly plays, but when he does his contribution is often noticeable. It wasn’t in the 3-1 defeat to Real, and while that was not solely down to the Guinea international with Liverpool malfunctioning on every level, a chunk of their blueprint relied on him.
Perhaps that in itself was an issue given the encounter, with so much riding on it for the sake of the Merseysiders’ season, was only his third start since December.
Injuries have been the greatest obstacle to Keita reaching his potential in England.
There have also been other inhibiting factors which has meant Liverpool’s third most expensive signing - expected to fortify their spine ala Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho - has underwhelmed.
This is the story of how despite everything being right in terms of recruiting the perfect profile of player, it still has the potential to turn out wrong.
In the beginning
During the closing months of 2016, Liverpool were pivoting on their midfield design. Mahmoud Dahoud had been their priority target prior to the start of that season, but Borussia Monchengladbach refused to sanction a sale after losing Granit Xhaka to Arsenal.
The initial idea was to play the long game and return for him. However, Jordan Henderson was filling in superbly as the No 6, while Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana and Emre Can provided Klopp with a variety of attributes to work with.
Liverpool assessed that what they were really missing was a more dynamic option in the middle, a player that could thrive as both a creator and destroyer.
In a unique case, the data, video analysis, scouting reports, references, and preference of each member of the recruitment team was aligned in signalling the best candidate for this hybrid role: Keita.
He was the lynchpin of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s intensive pressing system at Leipzig, a proactive and direct approach as used by Liverpool. Keita had also spent two seasons developing under the same tenets at Red Bull Salzburg.
His progressive numbers - how many of his actions lead to positive events - was off the scale. There was no rival to the mix of his ball-carrying ability and intense work out of possession.
Schalke director Christian Heidel felt Leipzig possessed a “12th player” because "Naby is like two, this boy is incomprehensible.”
That glowing feedback was the norm from Klopp's Bundesliga contacts.
Liverpool were well aware that Leipzig would not be easy to negotiate with. Their sporting director at the time, Ralf Rangnick, was desperate to field Keita in the club’s debut Champions League campaign.
They were not in need of money, wanted to establish themselves as a proper power and they were not short of suitors for the dynamo: Bayern Munich and Barcelona were also eager to land him.
“We were convinced that Naby would be a top-five player in the world,” a Leipzig executive tells The Independent.
“We have had great players here, but with him, it was different. We used to watch back videos of games for the analysis and think ‘how can he do that and then that? How can he do everything?’
“Ralph would build tactical plans around Naby. He loved his football mind. We knew he would have to leave us to reach his best level, but we didn't want him to stay in Germany with Bayern.
“Liverpool were perfect for him and he was a player created for Klopp. I don’t think waiting here another season helped him. He wasn’t the same.”
Leipzig batted away two lucrative offers for Keita - the second of which equalled the Bundesliga record for a transfer at the time and insisted he was not on the market in the summer of 2017.
He had a release clause of £48million effective from the following June, so Liverpool and the players’ agency Arena11 - Sadio Mane’s representatives - worked on trying every avenue to come to a compromise.
At the end of that August, they'd done it. The club confirmed the advanced signing of Naby Keita on a five-year contract in what was then a club-record deal, which was effective from 1 July 2018.
Liverpool paid a premium on top of his release clause to get it over the line. They ousted Barca and Bayern in getting him but had to wait a year, while Leipzig were pleased to squeeze another season out of their major asset.
“It was a mistake,” the Leipzig source said. “You should not keep a player against his wishes. He was not the same and not just with his football, but his happiness.
“He had discipline problems, his mind was already in Liverpool. In Germany, there were many articles saying he was harming us and that did not help the mood here.”
Worth the wait?
When the news of the £52.75m advanced deal was announced on Liverpool’s website, Klopp revealed: “I have contact with a lot of people in the Bundesliga, how you can imagine, but I have never got so many ‘Congratulations’ messages like after we said in public that we signed Naby.
“He is the player of the league. Last year, together with Thiago Alcantara, who played an outstanding season for Bayern, he was the flier.
“OK, we have to wait but sometimes you have to wait for a really good thing. I have no problem with this; how you can imagine, I would have preferred another situation but that’s not a problem. It’s cool.”
No-one really benefited from the wait despite Liverpool reaching the Champions League final at the end of 2017-18, losing to Real in gutting fashion.
But they were on an upward trajectory and now had their major weapon in the middle of the park.
Keita’s start at Anfield was promising, he was outstanding during his debut against West Ham - a 4-0 victory - and was a regular in the XI until picking up a back injury away to Napoli in October.
He battled to regain his spot for two months afterwards but had lined up from the off 22 times in his maiden campaign.
That dwindled to 16 and is currently on nine, with his availability receding. Injuries have been varying and persistent, preventing any continuity or rhythm for Keita.
It has also knocked his confidence and heightened the pressure he has placed on himself, which has impeded his natural game.
“When Naby joined Liverpool, he had to adjust to a system that wasn’t built around him,” a source that works closely with the 26-year-old says.
“He had very good performances in the first season, but he was still getting used to not being the main man, not having everything run through him, learning the little details that make the approach work.
“The feeling that was in the second year, without injuries, he was going to blow the league away.
“That obviously didn’t happen, there were more setbacks. The Fabinho-Wijnaldum-Henderson midfield became key for the club’s success and it has been like Naby is fighting injuries, what people expected him to be and the reality of what has happened since he joined.
“Liverpool have won the Champions League and league with him, but not in the way that he imagined. He was not a big influence in either.
“It has been very hard on him personally and psychologically not to be able to contribute in the way that he wants to, which comes from the psychical side.”
Keita has been named in Liverpool’s matchday squad for nine matches consecutively since 20 February.
He has been on a specialised programme with Dr Andreas Schlumberger, Liverpool’s head of recovery and performance, to reduce his risk of breaking down regularly.
Keita has been carefully managed, doing extra rehab shifts before being drafted into the fold and not being overloaded.
There is optimism that this period of availability can be prolonged, while helping him rediscover his football arrogance.
“Naby and Sadio are like brothers, but they are different,” says a source who knows both well. “Sadio is more critical, he gets angry with himself if he feels he is not playing like one of the best players in the world. He thinks too much. He is the more shy one.
“Naby loves to express himself on the pitch and with what he wears and all those things. But he is more sensitive. He didn’t take it well when he wasn’t playing at Salzburg and the last season in Leipzig was hard for him because he wanted to be at Anfield.
“It has been tough on him with the injuries. It steals his confidence, but I know it will come.”
It will be interesting to note Klopp’s use of Keita, an unused substitute in the win over Aston Villa, moving forward to ascertain if he believes the same.
Selecting him in Madrid was a massive vote of confidence, and while obituaries are already being written for the Guinean’s Liverpool career - where would he go anyway without the club taking a huge financial hit especially in Covid-shaped circumstances? - it is interesting to note that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been steadily available since mid-December yet has made less starts and total appearances than Keita.
Despite the glorious glimpses of his talent and the stats which prove that even with limited minutes he has a positive impact, it is difficult to be sure of what to forecast for a player that first pulled on the Liverpool kit when he was 11 for his street team in Guinea.
Too often, the 'two players in one' has been none - as was the case in Spain last week.
But as his age, with his skillset and the obstacles he has already overcome to feature for one of the biggest clubs in the world, fulfilling his Liverpool-supporting father’s greatest dream, it feels premature to discount Keita.
He may not become a top-five player in the world as Leipzig - and all his suitors for that matter anticipated - but being in the first 11 regularly would be a great place to start.
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