Naby Keita was supposed to be Liverpool’s missing link. Instead, 14 months after signing in a £48m deal, he remains missing in action.
Determining why this is largely leads us to an array of injuries that have resulted in the midfielder being side-lined for 132 days all told. It can reasonably be deduced too that in many of the games in which he has appeared those injuries have been a factor, as he feels his way in to the frenetic confines of the Premier League.
Yet still from his 41 outings across all competitions in a red shirt it is difficult to conjure up a memorable moment, and this from a player who was expected to take Liverpool onto the next level after two outstanding seasons with RB Leipzig had him widely heralded as the kind of special talent who could do precisely that.
Instead they have reached that level without him.
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It should not be forgotten just how good Keita was in the Bundesliga. For two campaigns – yet more injuries aside – he was consistently sensational, scoring 16 goals, making 14 assists, and elsewhere running the offensive show.
He was on occasion an all-dribbling, all-running, all-action phenomenon and such was his impact that Jurgen Klopp not only identified him as a key signing but was prepared to wait a full year to bring him to Merseyside. It’s a rare thing indeed that a coach consents to putting the rebuilding of a midfield on hold for such a period. Keita was deemed worth it.
As already stated his failure so far to justify that wait partly comes down to injuries but a successful re-imagining of Klopp’s engine-room is also a consideration. Increasingly, as last season’s title race gave way to Champions League success Klopp favoured a workmanlike midfield three – typically Milner, Wijnaldum, and Henderson – and with the ever-more-influential Fabinho coming to the fore that has only pushed Keita even more to the margins.
The recent re-emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Klopp’s go-to attacking option behind his formidable front three only drops the Guinean further down the pecking order.
But perhaps the most worrying clue as to what the future holds for Keita came from – ironically – glowing praise from Liverpool’s assistant manager Pep Lijnders back in September. “What a boy,” Klopp’s right-hand man exclaimed. “He makes our build-up play completely different.”
Liverpool are presently unbeaten in the league after 11 games. They are flying. They have no need to try anything different to this point and it’s likely that will remain the case for some time yet.
It is far too early to make any definitive claims about Naby Keita’s time at Anfield. He is still young and yet to string sufficient games in his preferred role to make a mark. He has too a manager who stopped the clock to secure his signature such was his faith in him. Lastly, that astonishing talent witnessed in Germany doesn’t dissipate overnight.
But right now the player who was supposed to provide answers remains a question. That cannot continue forever.