Opinion: Is the number ten role calling for Liverpool new boy Naby Keïta?

Opinion: Is the number ten role calling for Liverpool new boy Naby Keïta?

Naby Keïta, Adam Lallana and the alternatives who can fill the number ten position for Liverpool post-Philippe Coutinho, with Nabil Fekir unlikely to join the Reds this summer

ben-lockett
Ben Lockett

Naby Keïta’s arrival this summer at Liverpool has almost, dare it be said, gone unnoticed with fellow big-money arrivals in midfielder Fabinho and especially Alisson, now the world’s most expensive goalkeeper.

Certainly when compared to last summer, when Liverpool fans were extremely excited at securing Keïta’s long-term future, everyone seems to have forgotten that a man with the potential to become one of the best midfielders in the world has joined the club.

However, talk to the Liverpool players who have now spent a few weeks up close with the 23-year-old in training, along with manager Jürgen Klopp and his coaching staff, and they will all rave about Keïta’s talents and his potential to carry Liverpool closer to Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title this season.

Ultimately, Keïta only cost Liverpool around £53m after RB Leipzig failed to qualify for the Champions League last season. Keïta himself was not as consistent in 2017/18 (understandable given his future was away from Germany and on Merseyside instead) when compared with his breakout campaign in 2016/17, attracting the interest not only of Liverpool but European giants including Barcelona, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Liverpool’s arch-rivals, Manchester United.

However, Klopp worked his magic on the Guinean international, helped by a few words of encouragement from Sadio Mané and Keïta’s father, who is a big Liverpool fan.

Throw in Michael Edwards’ work on his Leipzig counterpart, Ralf Rangnick, and Liverpool eventually emerged with a deal for Keïta in 2017 that would come into effect for 2018 whilst saving around £30m in the process.

 

Wait is over

Now the wait is over, and Naby Keïta is officially a Liverpool player, joining a team fresh from reaching the Champions League final and with endless potential to succeed this season.

Currently, with one week to go before the transfer window closes in England (but not in mainland Europe, who retain their old deadlines and will have around three weeks extra to complete their business), Liverpool have made four additions this summer, but will there be a fifth?

There have been rumours surrounding another central defender, but publicly Klopp has insisted that he is happy with his current options, and Dejan Lovren, Joël Matip and Joe Gomez deserve another year to see if they have the form – and fitness – to succeed as Liverpool centre-backs.

The primary transfer topic remains whether the Reds need an attacking midfielder to complete their firepower for the season ahead.

Klopp obviously had these thoughts in mind when Liverpool came so close to signing Lyon captain Nabil Fekir, only for the move to break down, reportedly because of medical concerns.

Liverpool may resurrect a deal for Fekir, or move onto alternative attackers, such as Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. Yet time is short, handing European clubs an advantage in negotiations.

Consequently, securing value in any transfer will be difficult.

Liverpool may, therefore, wait until January or next summer rather than panic buy – a principle that Klopp and Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, have kept faith with in the last couple of years.

 

Filling a void

Assuming there are no more incomings this summer, Liverpool fans may feel that the squad is still missing a replacement for Philippe Coutinho, who left back in January to complete his dream move to Barcelona in a record-breaking deal exceeding £140m in total.

Klopp will probably stick with the 4-3-3 formation that was so successful last season, with perhaps 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2 being used on occasions because of certain team selections.

While Coutinho is no more at Anfield, Klopp still has plenty of options to call upon in the forward midfield position, ahead of Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson (or Keïta himself).

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané can both drop back from their inside forward roles in the front three to play as a number ten, while Xherdan Shaqiri, signed from Stoke City for £13m to provide competition for Mané and Salah, can also operate in that position.

Moreover, after a season filled with frustrating injuries, Adam Lallana could fill the gap that the unfortunate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has left behind.

The 30-year-old has only shown his quality sporadically during pre-season (an argument some make is a microcosm for his Liverpool career as a whole) but at his best offers silky smooth skills, creativity in abundance and a fierce work-rate to match, emphasising Klopp’s fondness for the England international.

Yet Lallana has picked up another minor injury recently, highlighting that, for his talent, his fitness now cannot be relied upon.

However, Liverpool’s primary option for ‘the Coutinho role’ could be playing their new number eight as a number ten. Steven Gerrard was quite often employed as a number ten to great effect.

Perhaps that is asking quite a lot of Keïta so early into his Liverpool career, but he certainly has the quality to succeed as the advanced midfielder in Klopp’s system, bringing his dribbling and shooting to full effect.

Any comparisons with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté are inaccurate. Keïta has the ability to play as a defensive midfielder, but his talents predominantly suit a box-to-box role, as he is an all-around, all-action midfielder.

Yet with the likes of Fabinho, Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner all available to play further back in midfield, Keïta needs to be firmly looking forward for this season.

 

Building bridges

Keïta has already struck up a great relationship with Daniel Sturridge, both on and off the pitch, which brings back memories of Sturridge’s early chemistry with Coutinho when the pair arrived in 2013.

Keïta might not only lift Liverpool’s midfield but also revive and improve those in the attack as well.

Klopp will need to rotate frequently in order to keep the squad fresh for the long season, particularly if Liverpool want to challenge on all fronts, but Liverpool’s first choice midfield appears likely to be Henderson, Fabinho and Keïta behind the fearsome front three.

Consequently, Keïta looks set to be taking on the mantle of both Gerrard and Coutinho this season, in shirt and position respectively.

Both are big boots to fill, but Keïta has waited a year to prove his worth in a Liverpool shirt – now is his time to remind everyone why he was worth the wait.

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