‘Laptop phenomenon’ Naby Keita can be a key man for Liverpool this season
If you chat about football for long enough, a cliché is never too far away.
One which seems particularly relevant for Liverpool this summer is the idea that players who are returning to their side after a long time out will be like new signings.
Having muddled their way through 2020/21 by using 20 different pairings of centre-backs, this is most appropriately applied to the heart of their defence, where Joe Gomez, Joe Matip and Virgil van Dijk are all on the brink of first team returns in competitive fixtures.
But this may also be observed in midfield, where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita have enjoyed encouraging warm up games after only featuring for 288 and 714 minutes respectively last season.
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In truth, Liverpool supporters have been waiting the entirety of Keita’s career with the club for him to show what he is capable of on a consistent basis.
In his two seasons with RB Leipzig he scored 14 leagues goals and assisted 11 more, yet across three years in England those two statistics stand at four apiece.
However, while these totals don’t inspire confidence for the future, they also do Keita a disservice. He may not have scored or assisted a goal in 2020/21 but he played a part in the build up for seven in league or Europe, meaning he contributed to one every 95 minutes.
As Mohamed Salah’s figure was 94 (with penalties excluded) while Firmino and Mane were at 103 and 104 respectively, it becomes clear that Keita was more influential (in his small sample) than a simple glance at the headline statistics would imply.
We saw a good example of this in the recent friendly match with Hertha Berlin. Liverpool’s number eight won the ball high up the pitch and played it to Salah in the penalty box.
His backheeled pass then found Takumi Minamino who put the ball into the back of the net. Keita didn’t get a goal or assist but the Reds wouldn’t have scored without him setting the wheels of the move in motion.
His other contributions can be almost as important and hint at why Jurgen Klopp has often selected Keita for massive matches to the occasional bemusement of Liverpool’s fans.
Across the last four years, no player has made more pressures per 90 minutes in the league for the club than the Guinean has (per FBRef).
He is also a master at dribbling the ball up the field into dangerous areas. Keita was ranked fourth in the Bundesliga in his final season in Germany for progressive carries (those which advance the ball at least five yards forward in the front 60 percent of the pitch).
He hasn’t had enough time on the pitch in England to match his impressive total for his former club, but his rate per 90 minutes has increased with the Reds.
These sort of less obvious but vital interventions probably help to explain why his teams have usually had better records when he plays.
Over the previous three seasons, Liverpool’s Premier League goal difference has worked out at 1.27 per 90 minutes. Yet when Keita has been on the pitch the average is 1.62, meaning it has been 1.15 when he has been absent.
While it can’t all be attributed to him of course, the fact is that the Reds’ goal difference has been 0.47 per 90 minutes better when he has played. His figure in two seasons with RB Leipzig? 0.42, so essentially the same.
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It’s no doubt this sort of impact which was noted by the club when they made the move to sign him, as was revealed in a New York Times article on Liverpool’s director of research, Dr Ian Graham. In reference to Naby, it noted:
“What scouts saw when they watched Keita was a versatile midfielder. What Graham saw on his laptop was a phenomenon.”
There have been clear hints that he can offer more to the Reds’ cause, he just needs to put it all together in a single campaign. With just two years remaining on his Liverpool contract ( per Transfermarkt ) there is no better time for Keita to firmly establish himself in Jurgen Klopp’s side.
After all, the Reds have very few peak age midfielders at present and the Guinea international needs to make sure he makes the most of what should be his best years.
His fitness cannot be taken for granted, but a consistently available Naby Keita could take the 2021/22 Premier League by storm.