Article by Louis Connor
It’s the day we’ve waited 302 days for, and now Naby Keita is finally wearing a Liverpool shirt and is officially a member of the club heading into the 2018/19 season. Along with Van Dijk, Keita’s transfer saga ran the length of the last summer transfer window and just as the deal looked dead Liverpool were able to pay a premium fee to ensure that they would be the team paying Naby Keita’s release clause at RB Leipzig.
The man has been closely monitored over the past 10 months due to the nature of his move, but whilst his arrival was heavily anticipated what will the Guinean international bring to this budding Liverpool team?
The midfielder made 39 appearances for his previous club in all competitions; contributing towards nine goals and ten assists, 19% of the total goals Leipzig scored all season. Naby Keita’s versatility is a big part to his game, he has filled in almost every imaginable midfield position for his team from playing the number 6 to playing as a wide attacking midfielder. To break it down, in 39 appearances he started in Defensive Midfield 17 times scoring three and assisting three, in central midfield 14 times again scoring and assisting on three occasions. Keita filled in further up the pitch by starting in attacking midfield four times where he scored two goals and bagged one assist and finally came off the bench on four more occasions contributing one goal.
Here are the heatmaps for the last three starts Keita made at his former team:
In the game against Hertha Berlin, Keita operated as a wide attacking midfielder hence why his heat map is so one sided; the other two games Keita started in his usual role alongside Diego Demme in the middle of the park. What the heatmaps testify is Keita’s ability to get up and down the pitch, contributing at both ends for his team. What we also see is how often Keita finds himself in the oppositions box, as a midfielder a large portion of your chances on goal will come from late runs into the box; especially when you come against a team with two banks of four. If one midfielder runs in behind and provides an extra body in the box, then it has the opposition turning towards their own goal as opposed to trying to create chances in front of them from deep.
When it comes to driving from deep with the ball, Naby Keita is already one of the best in Europe; his ability to retain possession and take the ball past players is bar none for a central midfielder, last season he averaged 3 successful dribbles per game and 1.4 key passes, if he can continue that form then it will serve him well in Liverpool’s quick attacking system.
With Klopp’s Gegenpressing system, Keita has also shown that he can win the ball back for his team. In all competitions he averaged 2.5 successful tackles per game and made 1.5 interceptions, whilst this hunger and desire to win the ball back can often result in a few red cards (he was sent off twice and was booked another nine times). Whilst some may look to his discipline as an issue, it serves a greater use to this Liverpool team; for all the good, attractive football Jurgen Klopp’s team plays, there is always the feeling that the team there at the moment is at times too nice. If Naby Keita fixes this issue at the expense of a few yellow cards then it can only be another positive he brings to the team.
How does he compare to what we have now?
Whilst he is capable of playing in the 6, 8 or 10 role, Keita is more than likely to start the majority of his games as the box to box midfielder role that he does best. Meaning that players like Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner are the most like for like players that we currently have. First, we will look at the goal contributions per 90 for the team:
Whilst goal scoring isn’t an issue for Liverpool as such, if more players are contributing towards goals then it can at times take pressure off the front three to produce. As seen above, Naby Keita’s goal contribution trumps any of the numbers our current midfield group is producing, averaging at 0.44 per game Naby Keita is nearly doubling Oxlade-Chamberlain’s output who takes a solid second place.
You’ll quickly see a trend here, whilst Milner runs him close Naby Keita once again comes out on top with the number of key passes made per game on average. This stat is more impressive when you realise that Keita beats out the same midfielder that broke the record for most assists in a single Champions League season and if he can replicate this at Liverpool with Salah, Mane and Firmino in-front of him then his individual stats will go through the roof.
I mentioned before how good Keita is on the ball, and this only reinforces just how incredible he is. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum are both very gifted with the ball and Keita is completing more dribbles per game than both of them combined. As of next season this stat may drop due to Keita being surrounded by better players and being less relied upon, but it is still a testament to his dribbling ability.
Jurgen Klopp’s “Gegenpress” is synonymous with the teams he is in charge of, the ability to win the ball higher up the pitch creates more high-quality chances and Naby Keita will fit right in with what the manager requires of him defensively. Without even playing in this system, Naby Keita gains possession back more for his team than any other midfielder Liverpool have on their books. On average he wins the ball back four times a game this more than fills the hole left by Emre Can who comes second with an average of 3.4.
So what does he bring to Liverpool?
To summarise, Liverpool have purchased one of the most diverse midfielders in Europe. His all-round ability means he can fill in almost any position needed to a high quality, just like Virgil Van Dijk, Jurgen Klopp was willing to wait to get his man and this just shows how vital he will be to the German’s system. With quick feet, strength, tackling ability and attacking presence Naby Keita will heavily impact the game both defensively and offensively.
The fact that Barcelona and other European giants were interested in the midfielder shows that Liverpool have pulled off a massive coup in ensuring he’s a red and in taking the number 8 shirt he’s certainly got big shoes to fill.
Article by Louis Connor