Since his arrival from RB Leipzig in 2018, Naby Keita’s Liverpool career could be summed up in one word – injuries.
He has impressed when playing, but the problem in itself has been getting him on the pitch consistently and gathering momentum.
At the time of the signing’s confirmation in August 2017, Klopp said he had signed the best player in the Bundesliga, and after another positive season at Leipzig, his new player arrived with all the anticipation, hope and expectation of the previous 12 months – along with the mammoth task of becoming the Liverpool’s first no.8 after Steven Gerrard.
He provided the hockey assist for Liverpool’s opening goal of the 2018/19 campaign on debut, and when he sent Andros Townsend to the shops with a devastating turn at Selhurst Park a week later, the excitement was well and truly rife.
But that has been all Liverpool fans have really had to salivate over ever since – glimpses of a superstar on their hands, but two steps back taken for every one forward with each injury setback.
Statistically, Keita’s debut season on Merseyside provides an interesting insight. In some areas, he was very successful but in many others, he failed to hit the mark across 1,407 minutes in 25 appearances.
Aside from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s heavily skewed sample size of just 17 minutes, Liverpool’s no.8 had the highest xGBuildUp90 and was in the top five for xGChain90, with values of 0.63 and 0.82 respectively according to Understat.com.
The former is of most interest here, as xGBuildUp90 can often be a defender-dominated statistic, especially in a ball playing team such as Liverpool with most attacks beginning from the back.
This would suggest that he has thrived coming deeper to get possession and aiding the build-up of attacks, or perhaps that his effectiveness in pressing situations means he is the one to instigate the build-up after winning the ball closer to goal.
We know the importance Klopp and his staff place on pressing and transition moments, and Keita has shown an awareness and certain prowess in these situations at times in the red shirt.
However, two goals and one assist represent a considerable lack of decisive end product, and a Key Passes 90 of just 0.58 was better than only three of his teammates, all being centre-backs in Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren.
Keita’s xA and xA90 were also comparatively lower than each of his midfield rivals in the side as the Guinean settled into his first season in the Premier League.
This was not the Keita that had left Leipzig – he was a creative master in his final two seasons at the club. In the 2016/17 season, after which his move to Liverpool was confirmed, he scored eight goals and laid seven assists, ranking him second in the team for each category.
In addition to that, he was in the top five in each of KP90, xA, xA90, xGBuildUp and xGChain, and despite a decreased six goals and five assists in his final campaign in Germany, this was also true of the 2017/18 season.
Perhaps it was a transition period and an integration into a new system at play, as this season he has improved his statistics, albeit from a smaller sample size of just 358 minutes across nine matches – an average of under 40 minutes per appearance.
A KP90 of 2.01 is outranked only by Trent Alexander-Arnold, his 0.39 xA P90 is team-leading and he places second in both xGBuildUp90 and xGChain90, surpassed in both only by Curtis Jones who, similarly to Oxlade-Chamberlain from last season, has only played 14 minutes and hence has a skewed set of statistics.
A way to overlook the sample size is to put his stats alongside those of his teammates. Adam Lallana has played just four minutes more than Keita this season across 15 matches and does not come close to matching the Guinean in the aforementioned categories.
Xherdan Shaqiri, an arrival at the same time as Keita, has seen the pitch less than half the amount of time Keita has and again, while playing in a more advanced role, is a fair way off his teammate’s production if the numbers were to be standardised.
KEITA v TEAM-MATES
League performance - 19/20
|Premier League mins only|
The problem Liverpool now face is trying to get better where it appears there is very little room for improvement. One such way that has been frequently touted is the addition of a creative midfielder, but they have Keita waiting in the wings and yearning for uninterrupted and sustained quality.
He has demonstrated his ability already at Anfield, especially in sporadic appearances this season – coming into a side with such rhythm and a ruthless winning attitude is no mean feat.
All Keita really needs is a stretch of health, consistent game time and faith. He has the latter in abundance from manager Klopp, who labelled his man “a brilliant player” in February.
With five substitutes allowed when games resume and the likelihood of greater rotation, Keita will get his chance, and with a clean bill of health and plenty of training in the build-up, the end to this season could be Keita’s audition for an increased role in future campaigns.