Well before the 2017 summer transfer window even opened – well before Barcelona swooped in for Philippe Coutinho, well before the Virgil Van Dijk saga got extremely weird – Liverpool only had eyes for one player. That player was Naby Keita.
And now months later, after rumors of £70 million bids and outright refusals to sell, and thanks to a compromise with RB Leipzig, the Reds have their man – kind of.
Liverpool announced Tuesday morning that the two clubs had reached an agreement for the “future transfer” of Keita. The Guinean midfielder will move to Anfield, but not until next summer, when a £48 million release clause kicks in to his RB Leipzig contract. The Reds will also pay an “undisclosed premium” to lock up the deal now.
And whatever that premium is, it is almost surely worth it. Keita is the perfect Liverpool midfielder. The perfect Jurgen Klopp midfielder. He is the quintessential two-way, box-to-box player, a defensive pest and dribbling maestro fused together into one 22-year-old, 5-foot-8 body.
Keita propelled Leipzig to second place in the club’s first-ever Bundesliga season, and a rival executive had a simple explanation for their success. “Everyone has seen that Leipzig are a top team, especially since they have a 12th player,” Schalke director Christian Heidel said. “Naby Keita plays for two. This boy is incomprehensible.”
Remind you of anybody? It should. N’Golo Kante’s breakthrough season at Leicester prompted similar astonished statements, and claims that the Foxes played with Danny Drinkwater in the middle “and Kante either side.” Keita can have that same ever-present effect on a game.
But he is not Kante. He is different, brilliant in his own unique ways. He is not quite as strong in the tackle, but covers so much precious ground. He breaks up attacks at the edge of his own penalty area and at the edge of an opponent’s. He is a No. 6 when when the opposition have the ball in their attacking half, and a No. 8 when they are building from the back.
And then he becomes a No. 10 – and, more specifically, a central winger – with the ball at his feet. He ranked second in the Bundesliga a season ago in successful dribbles per game, right behind Ousmane Dembele and just ahead of Arjen Robben. That is the type of statistical company he keeps. And he is a central midfielder.
He’s exactly the type of central midfielder Jurgen Klopp needs. In Liverpool terms, he combines the attacking ability of Adam Lallana with the defensive ability of Jordan Henderson, then adds a whole lot more that no current Reds midfielder possesses. He’ll fit seamlessly into the Klopp press. He’ll take some of the attacking burden off Sadio Mane and the front three.
In a way, he’ll even offset the expected departure of Coutinho – if not this summer, then likely next. The Brazilian No. 10 is wonderful in tight spaces in the attacking third, and helps Liverpool overcome its biggest shortcoming: it’s inability to chisel away at and break through a low block.
Keita isn’t the passer nor the long-range shooter that Coutinho is, but he’s a ball progression expert. He’s a modern creative force who beats defenders not by splitting them with a through-ball but by skating by them with the ball still at his own two feet.
There are perhaps some questions about how that method of No. 10 play will translate to the Premier League. The German game is often open, end-to-end. The English game can be, but isn’t always. Keita should have at least some success weaving through lesser opponents who stay compact, but the extent of that success is to be determined.
But remember, Keita isn’t just a 10. He’s a midfield everything. He can help Liverpool win any type of game, against any type of opponent. And he’s still only 22.
Klopp would have loved to have Keita at Anfield for the 2017-18 campaign. He would have gone right into the midfield three, in front of Jordan Henderson and alongside either Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum or Emre Can. He would have especially helped Liverpool in the Champions League.
Klopp and the Kop will have to wait 10 months to welcome their newest gem. But once he does arrive, he’ll waste no time proving that he was worth the wait.