Jack Hallows’ first impressions series continues, this time with the long-awaited arrival of midfield superstar Naby Keïta.
Watching Naby Keïta play football in a Liverpool shirt is just how I imagined it would be.
While, by Klopp’s own admission, the Reds’ other midfield signing Fabinho is likely to take a little while longer to acclimatise to Liverpool’s all-action style of play, Naby Keïta is no stranger to the art of pressing and has looked at home from day one.
A real bundle of energy in the centre of the park, Keïta is the perfect player for a Jürgen Klopp team and it looks as if he possesses all the attributes required to play a massive role this season.
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We’d heard previously about how the Guinean was almost like a hybrid mix of N’Golo Kanté and Andres Iniesta but until now, that thought was just a pipe dream.
I think Naby Keita might be the definition of the flame emoji.
— Glenn Price (@GlennPrice94) July 22, 2018
Surely no midfielder on planet earth can have found the perfect blend of defensive intelligence and slick on the ball play to warrant that comparison?
Well, it looks like we found him.
I say looks like because admittedly, it is only pre-season and at the time of writing this, Liverpool haven’t exactly played any earth-shatteringly brilliant opponents. In fact, all of our fixtures so far could appropriately be called glorified training sessions.
However, there is also the argument that a heavy percentage of Keïta’s team mates during these pre-season fixtures – especially those fielded in the final third – are not first-team regulars. In fact, we’re probably not going to see the best of Keïta until the likes of Salah, Firmino and Mané start to feature regularly.
That’s got to be a scary thought for opposition teams because up until now, this guy has surely been the Reds’ stand out performer this summer.
So, what exactly has ‘NK8’ been brought to Liverpool to do you ask?
The best example I can give, comes from Liverpool’s recent 2-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers.
The Guinean saw an opportunity to win the ball back in the half space between the opposition’s midfield and defence and took it superbly, nipping in and robbing the Blackburn player.
Keïta then proceeded to take the ball under his control with ease, before nonchalantly slipping a perfectly weighted through ball into Daniel Sturridge’s path.
That passage of play summed up the best attributes of the midfielder’s game and with the extra pace of Salah, Firmino and Mané ahead of him in the season proper, we can expect to see the midfielder featuring prominently in the ‘chances created’ and ‘assists’ columns of stats gurus.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the former Leipzig midfielder’s game however, is the way he glides about the pitch when in possession.
It’s a skill that Liverpool’s midfield has been lacking since Philippe Coutinho departed and while the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are both adept at carrying the ball from deep, neither are as silky as Keïta.
His ability to twist and turn his way past pressing defenders with ease will certainly help him get to grips with Premier League football and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Guinean win numerous free kicks – possibly even penalties – as defenders resort to clumsy, late challenges in order to stop him.
Where Coutinho, Salah, Firmino and Mané were a ‘Fab Four’ that couldn’t be fielded together week in, week out due to the lack of balance it brought to the system, Keïta looks to be the answer.
His first thought always looks to be winning the ball back and keeping his side in possession and while he certainly has an eye for goals and assists, he’s not as driven by the goalscoring side of the game as Coutinho was.
Having him as the link up man in a midfield trio, providing service to the three aforementioned forwards and helping them in the press will be an absolute joy to watch.
I know there have been concerns over whether taking the number eight jersey, previously worn by Steven Gerrard, will play on Keïta’s mind and add to his desperation to perform for the club.
When you watch him play though, you genuinely wouldn’t have anyone else in that squad looking to fill those shoes – especially given his evident awareness of his own game and the fact that he feels the need to announce himself on Merseyside as the first Naby Keïta, not the next Steven Gerrard.
So, my first impression of Naby Keïta in a sentence?
Possibly the best player that Klopp has signed during his Liverpool tenure and more than worth the wait.