Naby Keita is evidently a special player in Jurgen Klopp’s eyes. So keen was Liverpool boss Klopp to sign Keita that he gave the green light 12 months ago to a then club record £50m outlay on the Guinea midfielder – £48m plus an additional fee because RB Leipzig qualified for the Europa League last season.
He also agreed to the Bundesliga outfit’s demand that Liverpool wait a year before they could actually have him.Now Keita is here, he has been given the coveted number eight shirt that was the preserve of club legend Steven Gerrard. There is a buzz surrounding Keita’s arrival on Merseyside.
Not many Liverpool fans at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina were local to north-west England but when his name was read out among the Reds’ eight half-time changes, it generated the biggest roar of approval. Keita paired up with Ben Woodburn and took up an advanced midfield role, in front and to the left of anchorman James Milner. So how did he perform in Sunday’s 3-1 International Champions Cup loss to Borussia Dortmund?
His first touch was an impressive flick with the outside of his left foot, intended for Alberto Moreno but very slightly over-hit. On the hour mark came a super step-over that created room for a chipped left-footed cross from the byeline that almost brought Liverpool a second goal. It didn’t really come off in this game but Keita needs little invitation to attack the opposition goal, whether he is running at it or sniffing round for scraps from the strikers.
Little wonder he was Leipzig’s third top scorer last season with nine goals, a number Liverpool would be grateful for in the coming campaign – last term, apart from star attacking players Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, no-one scored more than three times in the Premier League.
Jurgen Klopp: “I don’t want to give him 500,000 bits of information. Tactical discipline is a big strength and he does the right things in the right moment, which is how good players are. First of all, we will let him go and adapt to our system. He can play 10, in the future he might be a six. He played as a winger at Leipzig, which is not his best position but he has the speed for it and football intelligence. But we see him as a creative number eight playing the passes, making the runs with the ball. He has the same speed with the ball and without it, which is cool.”
Naby Keita: “The reaction in Guinea has been crazy, absolutely crazy. People are buying Liverpool shirts, or any red shirt. The interest is down to the fact no Guinean footballer has ever made it big or played for a top, top club. It is a source of pride back home that I have signed for Liverpool.”
James Pearce, Liverpool FC correspondent of the Liverpool Echo: “There is massive expectation, which has been heightened by the fact Liverpool fans have had to wait a year to see Keita play.
“He is expected to add the dynamism and energy the team have maybe been lacking. He is a nailed-on starter and from what we have seen so far, he will be ideally suited to the Premier League. He is only slight but he is strong and if anything, he will have to rein his tackling in.”
The Liverpool coach has now unveiled his plans for the 23-year-old this season. “We got him because he is the player he is and now we want to work with that,” Klopp said.“That means first of all we let him go and adapt to our system. 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.”
While Klopp has worked out how to use Keita, the midfielder himself has admitted the German manager was key in his arrival at Anfield.