The Curious Case Of Naby Keïta

Matches between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid are always cagey affairs. The nature of Diego Simeone’s management style is such that his teams tend to win 1-0 more often than not. He favours being defensively minded initially before attacking as a secondary thought. We’ve played Atletico seven times since 2008, albeit under a series of different managers, and the games have never involved more than three goals in normal time. That is perhaps why last night’s game was such a shock to the system. The Reds raced into a 2-0 lead and looked as though they were entirely in control of the game, only for the home side to come back into the match and appear to be on the ascendancy. Of course, when you’ve got a man of Mo Salah’s ability on the pitch, you’re always going to be likely to score a goal and it turns out he loves sticking a penalty into the back of the net at the Wanda Metropolitano. The penalty was a ludicrous one for Madrid to concede but deserved for the Reds.

In terms of the context of the season, that was a massive win for Liverpool. Atletico were unbeaten at the Wanda in Europe for four years prior to last night and had only lost one home game in the previous 40 matches there. That we looked so composed for most of the match against a ridiculously partisan crowd is a sign of just how good this side is, despite the fact that it is still flying under the radar for many pundits and journalists in the UK. There are conversations that we could have about the performance overall, of course. Our in-game management remains questionable, whilst I’m mildly concerned about what, exactly, is going on with our defence. I also think a conversation could be had about the manner in which we appear to struggle against teams with ten men on the basis of how we’ve played against first Chelsea and now Atletico. For now, though, I want to have a think about Naby Keïta and the curious nature of his time at Liverpool so far.

His Attacking Flair Is Not In Doubt

The goal that Naby Keïta scored last night was sensational. It was an instinctive reaction, catching the ball perfectly with the outside of his foot and sending it past the helpless Jan Oblak. It was similar in nature to the goal that he scored against Crystal Palace, insomuch as the ball dropped perfectly for him and he finished it with aplomb. It’s clear that attacking is the forte of the Guinean and it was his bursts from midfield to score that caught the attention of the Twitterati when Liverpool were first linked with him back in 2017. In many ways, he was signed to play for an entirely different team than the one that he now finds himself in, given that we scouted him extensively and made an agreement with RB Leipzig to bring him in a year before he actually arrived. Whether or not he’d have been more impressive with that side than he’s so far managed to be with this one is obviously a matter of some debate, but it’s only right to point that fact out.

Keïta is now in his fourth season with Liverpool and remains an enigma to many. There is little doubt that his ability to make an impression has been hampered by the constant injury issues that he’s suffered whilst at the club. Speaking personally, I know I have been frustrated with the Guinean seemingly getting injured at a rate of knots, meaning that he’s had to drop out of the team just as he’s been getting game time. You can be the very best player on the planet, but if you’re not fit enough to make it on to the pitch on a regular basis then you’re virtually worthless. It is, in many ways, precisely why Mohamed Salah is as valuable to the Reds as he is. His regular availability is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen from Keïta during his time at Anfield. When he does play, though, he can make an impact in the final third in a manner that makes him so exciting to watch. His goals against Palace and Atletico explain why so many were so excited when we signed him.

Defensively, He’s Often Found Wanting

The problem for Naby Keïta is what he offers the team defensively. There is no question that the midfield as a whole was poor for stretches of the game last night, but Keïta was at the scene of the crime for both of the Atletico Madrid goals. The manner in which Thomas Lemar glided past him for the home side’s first goal was really very poor. Yes, a lot still needs to happen from that point and I remain entirely perplexed about why it wasn’t ruled out for offside, yet his lack of strength and any sense of awareness of how dangerous Lemar could be is damning of his defensive mindset. He wasn’t much better for Atletico’s second either, being entirely too weak when up against Joao Felix. He was absolutely not the only midfielder to underperform, but he was at the scene of the crime for both goals and we looked much more solid once he’d been taken off and replaced by Fabinho Tavares. According to the stats, he had 12 duels in the match and lost ten of them.

Of course, those that wish to defend Keïta could point out that he’s being asked to play a role that doesn’t come naturally to him. He is an attack-minded player and is at his best when getting involved with things in the final third. Indeed, some would criticise me for even writing this article, given that we went on to win the match. What I would say is that I’ve written critical articles about the Reds and different players throughout my time writing this blog, so I’m not doing anything differently here. I’m also writing about the curious nature of Keïta rather than writing an outright attack of him. The reality is, though, that this Liverpool team is one in which all players have to pull their weight. Mo Salah is the best player on the planet right now, scoring goals at will. Yet time and again we see him pushing back to help out the defence. I’m not sure that that comes naturally to Keïta and, on the evidence of last night, I’m not convinced that it’s something he can learn. He remains a curate’s egg of a footballer.

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