Naby Keita made his long-awaited Liverpool debut in their 4-0 win over West Ham. His performance showed that he brings something different to Jurgen Klopp’s team, writes Adam Bate.
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher spoke for many when he openly wondered beforehand whether his old team were still lacking a little craft in the middle of the park. “Naby Keita, you would hope, can bring that quality,” he told Sky Sports. “But there still could be a question mark. Who is actually going to get that ball and thread that pass through?”
That question received a swift answer soon afterwards. Keita had produced a deft flick just 46 seconds into his debut against West Ham but it was the sequence of play for the game’s opening goal in the 19th minute that really showed how the £52.75m summer signing is going to help Jurgen Klopp this season. Liverpool do now have more creativity in midfield.
Keita picked up the ball in a pocket of space between the lines of West Ham’s defence and midfield before weighting a perfect pass into the path of Andrew Robertson outside him. The left-back had the simple task of gifting Mo Salah a tap-in at the far post. For Keita, it was what Opta define as a second-assist – the pass before the pass that leads to the goal.
The trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner brought many qualities to Liverpool’s midfield last season, but not one of them registered a second-assist. They were directly involved in only eight goals in 68 Premier League appearances between them. Keita looks likely to give Liverpool more of a threat beyond their front three.
There was almost a repeat of that opening goal after 37 minutes when Keita, finding space once again, spread the play to his left in a move that culminated in Salah having his shot well saved from point-blank range by Lukasz Fabianski. In between those Salah efforts – one scored, one spurned – Keita almost wriggled through inside the West Ham box.
“This is why Keita is so difficult to play against,” said Andy Hinchcliffe, on co-commentary for Sky Sports, after watching that particular passage of play. “At times, he releases passes early. At other times, he will trust himself to beat players in tight areas. You’re just not sure what he is going to do so you’re not sure whether to stand off him or get tight with him.”
If there is a risk, of course, it is that Liverpool may lose something in exchange for this greater creativity. The good news is that, as Klopp pointed out in pre-season, Keita “knows the football philosophy” already, having played a similar style of play at RB Leipzig. There was plenty of evidence of that too in his debut performance at Anfield on Sunday.
In the first hour of the match, Keita won possession of the ball on eight occasions – more than any other player on the pitch. Much of it was straightforward. Some of it was more significant. His tackle on Michail Antonio on the edge of the Liverpool penalty box early in the second half drew loud roars of approval from the home crowd.
When Roberto Firmino was replaced with Jordan Henderson midway through the second half, Keita showed his flexibility too as Klopp elected to move him from a central position to the left flank. “He has been everywhere,” former Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. “He has been dynamite. Keita has been the main man.”
There is a bit of competition for that role in this Liverpool team but the important thing is that Keita improves them. He gives Klopp another option, one that could be crucial in breaking down teams at home – something that was a problem for Liverpool last season. James Milner said afterwards that Keita will only get better. This was a pretty good start.
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(c) Sky News 2018: Naby Keita impressed for Liverpool on his debut against West Ham