Good things come to those who wait, and in the case of Liverpool and Naby Keita the saying could not be more appropriate.
They’ve been dying to see the Guinean at Anfield. The 12-month wait has felt like a lifetime.
One game into the new Premier League season, it looks like it was worth it. The little man is making a huge impression.
Keita starred as the Reds made a flying start to the campaign, his performance one of the standouts in Sunday’s 4-0 win over West Ham .
Sharp and dynamic, aggressive and creative, it was everything Jurgen Klopp had hoped for from the £53 million ($67m) man. The Liverpool manager tries to hide it, but he’s more excited about the 22-year-old’s arrival than any other. He believes Keita can take his side to the next level – the winning level.
“I said from the beginning that he settled really quick,” Klopp said after the West Ham game. It certainly seemed that way on the pitch. Keita, playing as a ‘No.8’ on the left of Liverpool’s midfield three, looked like he’d been at Anfield all his life.
“He’s been here eight minutes but it looks like he’s been here eight years,” remarked Jamie Redknapp, the former Reds captain. “He’s been the main man.”
It is obvious already why Liverpool were prepared to sit tight and wait a year for Keita. The deal to bring him from RB Leipzig was agreed last August, the culmination of a prolonged charm offensive from Reds sporting director Michael Edwards, who negotiated hard with the German club to find a suitable arrangement.
Klopp was disappointed not to have secured his services for last season, with Leipzig simply unwilling to sell their prized asset ahead of the club’s first season in the Champions League. Barcelona and Bayern Munich made advances, but it was Liverpool’s pitch which won the day. Klopp, Edwards and the rest of the Reds’ recruitment team deserve huge credit. Even when having to wait a year, they knew they’d pulled off a coup.
“I have contact to a lot of people in the Bundesliga,” Klopp said after the deal was confirmed last year. “And I have never had so many congratulations messages as I had after signing Naby!”
Liverpool had watched Keita for three years, first scouting him playing for Salzburg as a 19-year-old against Malmo in a Champions League qualifier. He didn’t play well; he was booked in the first half and substituted before the second. Salzburg lost 3-0.
Still, Liverpool tracked him throughout his time in Austria, where he was named player of the year, and followed his progress as he moved on to Leipzig, Salzburg’s sister club, in 2016.
They saw a midfielder with an astonishing array of gifts; acceleration, quick feet, an instinctive awareness of space in both an attacking and defensive sense, excellent balance and the ability to play passes as well as carry the ball forwards.
His skillset was deemed unique. Comparisons to N’Golo Kante arrived, but Keita’s footballing idol was Andres Iniesta. Frederic Arpinon, the scout who took Keita to his first European club, FC Istres in France, immediately saw the similarities.
“Straightaway, he reminded me of Iniesta,” Arpinon told the Liverpool ECHO earlier this year. “His technique was excellent, he was so good on the ball, he was strong and he could pass it well. When he lost the ball, he worked so hard to win it back. He could do everything.”
That much was evident at Leipzig, his unique talents helped Ralph Hassenhutl’s side make an immediate impression on the Bundesliga, finishing second to Bayern Munich in their maiden top-flight campaign. It confirmed his place as one of Europe’s hottest properties, and convinced Liverpool to make their move.
Now he’s here, the smile has barely left Klopp’s face. He knows he has a special talent, one which can turn his midfield from a grafting one into a brilliant one, adding drive and penetration as well as work-rate. “He’s in because he’s a fantastic football player,” he told reporters on Sunday.
While Fabinho, his other big-money midfield signing, is given time to adjust and adapt to a new club and a new league, Klopp is happy to unleash Keita on an unsuspecting Premier League.
Team-mates, meanwhile, have been blown away by what they have seen from the 23-year-old. In July, Goal visited Melwood for an exclusive interview with Joe Gomez . Keita had just completed his first week at the club, and walked past as we conducted our chat. “He’s the real deal,” Gomez told us. “He’s been unreal in training.”
After West Ham had been swept aside at the weekend, Gini Wijnaldum – a player whose place will be challenged by Keita’s arrival – was similarly effusive.
“He can provide assists, he can score goals,” the Dutchman smiled. “He can keep the ball and give us… I don’t want to say time to rest but… time to keep the ball as a team. He can regain the ball, his counter-pressing is good. I think he’s a good signing for us!”
James Milner, the only man who covered more distance than Keita against the Hammers on Sunday, agrees.
“He’s top quality, like all the signings we’ve brought in,” the vice-captain said.
“He’s only going to get better. You can only imagine how good he’s going to be in a few months’ time with more games and more time with the boys.”
It is telling that Liverpool had no hesitation offering him the No.8 jersey, which had unsurprisingly remained dormant since Steven Gerrard’s exit in 2015. Gerrard was there to hand it over personally when Keita signed his Reds contract last year – a symbolic moment.
“If somebody like that gives you his shirt number, it’s not to play around with,” Keita says. “It is to try and do as much as he did – that’s my motivation.”
One game in, he’s already on the right track. If he can stay there, then Liverpool will be on the way to glory.
And that really would be worth the wait.