9 August 2018

Africa: English Premier League Preview - What Does Naby Keita Bring to Liverpool?

Photo: Arsenal
Arsenal team.

Preamble

From dodging cars in the streets of Conakry, Guinea to be on of the most exciting midfield talents in the world of football, Naby's story is also a Cinderella one. It's on record just how much he has loved the game since he was a toddler. Naby kicked anything that met his feet, played football in the busy Koleya streets shoeless or otherwise, faced rejection at several trials in France because of his stature and a lack of tactical understanding of the game. Now, we know his name, Anfield and indeed the Premier League awaits for the diminutive trickster. What should we expect?

Eight is the number

Naby Keita of Liverpool during the Pre-Season Friendly between Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool at Ewood Park on July 19, 2018 in Blackburn, England.

(July 18, 2018 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

The 23-year-old arrived at Liverpool after switching from RB Leipzig in a then-record transfer for the Merseyside club, valued at £52.75 million. He inherited the number '8' shirt at Liverpool, which had been vacant since the days of the legend, Steven Gerrard. In fact, Steve G himself did the honors of handing the prized shirt to the Guinean international. These are the shoes he is expected to fill, shoes that many believe he will fill. Just for some perspective, Gerrard spent 17 years at the club and scored 186 goals in 710 appearances in a similar role. Yes, it's no easy feat. Keita already has 17 goals and 15 assists so far in his professional career since appearing for Red Bull Salzburg in 2014. Should he just maintain this rate, mathematics tells us that Keita will rise to the occasion and tread the path of Legends like Gerrard, perhaps even make his own.

The playing style

Keita was mostly deployed on the wing at RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, but football science and art tell us that he is a number 8. The kind that is popularly known as a box to box midfielder. He is likely going to play in the midfield of three with the recent arrival at Liverpool, Fabinho who is able to provide more defensive cover to the defenders and Jordan Henderson, Milner or Gini Wijnaldum. When Oxlade Chamberlain recovers from injury, he will also surely be among Jurgen Klopp's options. It is true that Keita will have to repeatedly prove his inclusion into the starting eleven in the presence of such competition, but here why I think he could easily be one of the first names on the team sheet.

"Essentially, I see Keita as a possessing the combined qualities of Wijnaldum, Henderson and Oxlade Chamberlain. You get more from him than choosing any of the three individual players." - Dennis Takaendesa, FirstTouch Africa

Liverpool play a 4-3-3 formation with Roberto 'Bobby' Firmino as the false nine, Salah and Mane on either wing. They actually do not have a proper attacking midfielder who assumes the playmaker role, Firmino has been the one closest to being that. Now, Naby doubles as a defensive and attacking midfielder. He is able to intercept passes, break presses from the opposition and quickly turn defense into attack. The Guinean is so comfortable on the ball, that he is able to creatively run through the midfield, skipping markers and even finding the back of the net in the absence of good options to receive the ball from him. This obviously attracts opponents, freeing the likes of Mo Salah, Mane, and Firmino who have become a deadly attacking trio that not many can stop. He can also pick players from any part of the pitch with long passes, much like Henderson.

No wonder the Mersey-side club broke the bank for him.

Naby Keita #8 of Liverpool controls the dribble as he moves towards the goal and is chased by Amos Pieper #42 and Herbert Bockhorn #39 of Borussia Dortmund during an International Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 22, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(July 21, 2018 - Source: Bob Leverone/Getty Images North America)

Under Klopp, Liverpool have become devastating on the counter-attack and somewhat predictable. Many would agree that they play long balls, more of the long balls coming from the previous midfield and defensive setup. They will still play long balls but Keita would offer something different when required, with his ability to take on players and squeeze in key short and defense-splitting passes. He has been compared to Kante and a host of many other great central midfielders, but he is just Naby Keita. Jurgen Klopp himself has hinted on Naby's indispensable role to the 2018 UEFA Champions League finalists.

"I see him as an '8', he can play '10' as well, maybe in the future, he can play '6' as well. At Leipzig he played as a winger - that's for sure not his best position but he can play it because he has the speed for it, he has the football intelligence for it. We see him as a creative No.8, playing the passes and making the runs with the ball." - Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool Manager

The family-factor

"Salzburg improved me as a player and I learnt so much there, I got a really tactical education. Sadio was important for me, he still is! To me, he's my big brother. He really likes to learn new things, to improve and to push himself and we are the same in this way. He's a good example for me." - Naby Keita, Guinea and Liverpool

Equally important to great performances on the pitch, is a good off the pitch environment. It seems like Baby Keith has settled well at Melwood Park from the social media coverage. You could guess that central to the smooth transition could be the African connection at the club, more so Sadio Mane whom Keita sees as a big brother since their time together at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.

Liverpool, it just might be your time this time. You obviously ain't walking alone!

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