Everyone connected to Liverpool was undoubtedly filled with anxiety in March when the coronavirus pandemic brought football to its knees.
Having waited 30 years to win a domestic title, the red half of Merseyside never would have envisaged a scenario in which a global pandemic threatened to derail what seemed like a formality before the Premier League was halted.
When it emerged voiding the season was a possibility, albeit a slim resolution, that apprehension among fans, players and manager probably grew.
Fast forward three months and Liverpool have now been crowned champions. Delay, it proved to be, not denial for Klopp’s troops, who will go down in history as the club’s greatest side in a generation.
While the club’s wait throughout the lockdown was fraught with unease, one player who was certainly a beneficiary of the enforced hiatus was Naby Keita, the dynamic Guinea maestro whose season had been marred by niggling injuries.
The former RB Leipzig midfielder had started a miserly three times in the league, with several muscular injuries limiting how often Klopp could rely on the West African star during the campaign.
His non-involvement was especially felt in their Round of 16 Champions League elimination by Atletico Madrid when the German tactician could only summon James Milner and Fabinho from the bench (to replace Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson respectively) against the Spanish giants.
Those sort of nights was why the Anfield giants not only paid a premium for his services but waited a year to see him grace the English top flight. However, as the ex-Borussia Dortmund trainer sought solutions against a resolute Atletico side, Keita was frustratingly missing through injury.
Despite all the uncertainty that the lockdown brought, it was just what the doctor ordered for the lively Guinean in an injury-plagued season. The time off has allowed him to become healthy and it’s told in his performances since Project Restart became a reality.
Keita has started three of Liverpool’s seven games since June, featuring for 65 minutes in their dour Merseyside derby draw with Everton, 85 minutes against relegation-threatened Aston Villa and for an hour against Brighton & Hove Albion.
Of the aforementioned games, Klopp will probably have been most impressed by the encounter with Villa at Anfield, not because he set up the first of two goals but owing to the fact he lasted 85 minutes unscathed. You’d have to go as far back as December to witness the Guinean either lasting longer or playing an entire game.
Indeed, it signified progress on all fronts as Keita not only played significant minutes but also made a telling impact on the pitch as well.
The ex-Leipzig man created Sadio Mane’s opener with 19 minutes to play, which happened to be Liverpool’s only effort that fell into the ‘big chance created’ column, had the most touches of the home team’s midfielders and won more duels (four) than Chamberlain and Fabinho combined.
That showing was followed up by an even better evening at the Amex, where he set up Mohamed Salah’s 18 league goal of the campaign to put the visitors 1-0 up. Against the Seagulls, despite playing for only an hour, Keita created four chances (including two clear-cut efforts), had a 100 percent success rate from three attempted dribbles and won all but one of seven total duels – the same number as Henderson (three) and Georginio Wijnaldum (three) combined.
Admittedly, both assists came against teams currently placed 17th and 15th in the standings, but still, it’s been pleasing to see Keita flourishing for the Reds and so-far avoiding a recurrence to past layoffs.
Thus, it poses questions as to whether Klopp should retain faith in the African ace or look to beef up his midfield regardless of the physical condition of his healthy-again star, especially in light of recent links to Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara.
The former Barcelona playmaker is reportedly interested in a move to the world champions, who are said to be keen on a player entering the last year of his contract.
While it’s certainly hard to argue against swooping in for a performer as supremely talented and effective as Thiago at a relatively cheap fee, the player’s age and persistent injury problems will pose a concern.
Despite his undoubted quality, the Bayern virtuoso, aged 29, doesn’t fit into the age bracket of recent Liverpool signings, while incessant layoffs throughout his career in Spain and Germany don’t bode well in a league as physically demanding as the Premier League.
Given the ages of Henderson and Virgil van Dijk (30 and 29 respectively), Roberto Firmino, Salah and Mane (all 28), the Reds will certainly want to avoid a situation where they’ll need a heavy rebuilding job on their squad in two years.
Nevertheless, the departure of Adam Lallana and the contract situation of 29-year-old Wijnaldum, whose current deal runs out in a year, indicate the newly crowned champions need a signing or two in midfield even if the Dutch star does sign on the dotted line.
While the pandemic has left the Merseyside giants in a somewhat tricky financial situation, the arrival of competition in midfield shouldn’t affect Keita so much, as history already suggests his minutes on the pitch ought to be managed wisely to get the best out of him.
Evidence since the restart points to this already, as Klopp has used the Guinea star sensibly in the last month.
‘Naby Lad’ has started as many league games in a month than he managed between August and March, but whether the talented midfield man will be given greater responsibility or otherwise next season will be determined by how frequently he maintains this current bill of health.