Naby Keita and Liverpool's £52m failed transfer gamble that has left the Reds needing a huge summer rebuild
If you were looking for a way to sum up Liverpool’s current midfield problems, then Naby Keita would be as good a place to start as any. The Guinea international celebrated his 28th birthday on Friday. Theoretically, he should be in his prime as a footballer and, four-and-a-half years into his Reds career, well established at the heart of Jurgen Klopp’s side.
He remains, after all, the fourth-biggest signing the club has ever made, and the fifth-most expensive central midfielder in Premier League history.
But Keita is not well established in Liverpool’s team, even if he has started each of their last four matches. He is certainly not playing the best or most consistent football of his career, nor does he look much like a £50 million ($60m) player.
In fact, he is set to move for absolutely nothing this summer. His contract at Anfield expires in June, and there is little sign of an extension being agreed. Initial talks were held last year, but all has gone quiet since. The expectation now, from multiple sources, is that he will depart at the end of the season.
If, and indeed when, he does leave, he will do so with medals and memories, but also a sense of sadness, of promise unfulfilled. In an era of super signings on Merseyside, Keita will go down as one of the few big-money Klopp buys who failed to truly deliver. A good player who could have been great, but who stagnated or even went backwards even during his time at Anfield.
Had everything gone to plan, Keita would be integral as Klopp builds his next great team at Liverpool. He was, after all, signed as a game-changer, arriving as one of the best players in Germany, a midfielder who did everything - dribbling, creating, tackling, pressing, scoring - and did it well.
He was rated highly enough to be presented with the No.8 jersey by none other than Steven Gerrard, and Klopp beamed when revealing that his phone had been blowing up with messages of congratulations as soon as news of Liverpool’s £52m ($63m) deal with RB Leipzig had emerged in August 2017.
Keita did not actually arrive at Anfield until the summer of 2018 but, close to five years on, we are still waiting to see the player we thought Liverpool were buying. What we have seen, for the most part, has been a pale imitation.
The biggest issue, unquestionably, has been one of availability. Liverpool have played 258 games since Keita joined, but he has been a part of only 127. He averages 25 appearances a season, and has started only 76 times in all competitions. He has completed 90 minutes on only 19 occasions.
Sure, there have been some fine performances, the odd spectacular goal and he has a win percentage of over 70 percent when he has featured, but the reality is that most will remember him for his hamstrings and his knees rather than his goals and his assists.
Furthermore, Keita’s inability to establish himself as a regular - only once has he started five games in a row, and that was in February 2019 - and Liverpool’s determination to persist with him, is part of the reason the club finds itself in its current predicament, with performances declining, with contracts expiring and with a huge midfield overhaul required in the next transfer window.
It is well documented that the Reds have only brought in one senior midfielder (Thiago Alcantara) since Keita’s arrival, with Klopp gambling on the man from Guinea shaking off his fitness issues, playing his way into the team and then staying there. It just hasn’t happened, and the gamble looks more ill-judged with each passing week.
This is not to blame Keita for all of the Reds’ current ills, by the way. No player wants to be injured, and it should be pointed out that he did feature 40 times last season, starting two finals and coming on in a third as Klopp’s side came within a whisker of the greatest of all campaigns. He hasn’t been a terrible player for the club. Far from it.
Rather, it is to try and explain the situation Liverpool currently find themselves in, and the difficulties they have had trying to evolve and improve, retaining its core performers while adding enough freshness to keep the train moving forwards.
In an ideal world, Keita and Fabinho, 28 and 29 respectively, would be locked in as starters, with Henderson, Thiago and to a lesser extent James Milner providing experienced support, and Stefan Bajcetic, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott offering youthful rotation options.
That isn’t the case. Keita, like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, simply cannot be relied on to start games regularly and, crucially, Liverpool have either refused or been unable to sell either player, denying them both funds and space with which to refresh and replenish their squad.
Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain, £90m ($108.5m) worth of talent no less, will leave for nothing in the summer. Henderson, meanwhile, is 33 in June, Thiago will be 32 in April, Milner turned 37 in January and Fabinho’s form has declined to such an extent that Bajcetic, an 18-year-old rookie, is keeping him out of the team and rightly so.
As for Jones, Elliott and Fabio Carvalho, all are clearly players of huge potential, but all still have questions to answer, be it fitness, skillset or the more basic issue of whether they are, in fact, midfielders. At this moment, none of them are the answer.
And so Klopp finds himself here, searching for imperfect solutions in the short term and with the long-term future of his team seemingly dependent on Jude Bellingham’s desire to ignore Real Madrid, Manchester City, and probably Champions League football entirely, by moving to Merseyside in the summer. Even if Liverpool do win the race for the Borussia Dortmund star, they will still need more quality signings if they are to truly get themselves back on track.
In fact, they could do with a run of transfers now like they had between June 2017 and June 2018, when they were able to transform their team, and their fortunes, by bringing in the likes of Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho, players who quickly achieved elite status on Merseyside.
Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain, of course, arrived during that remarkable 12-month period too, but neither have been able to scale the same heights, and neither will be part of Klopp’s latest Anfield revival.
In the case of Keita, in particular, that feels like a huge shame. A £52m flop? Not exactly. But certainly not the signing, or the player, he should have been for Liverpool.