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Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain and now Keita? Liverpool's squad starting to show its strength

4:00 PM EDT 10/26/19
Naby Keita Liverpool PS
The Guinean has failed to live up to the hype since arriving at Anfield but he is now flying in training and starting to impress on the pitch

Liverpool’s squad is starting to show its strength.

Old Trafford belonged to Adam Lallana, while Genk was all about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

But it has been the presence of another Reds midfielder which has perhaps offered the most encouragement to Jurgen Klopp of late.

Is this the time for Naby Keita to shine?

The Guinean, impressive off the bench against Manchester United last Sunday, continued his promising form in Belgium on Wednesday night.

Picked from the start, the 24-year-old’s all-action display left fans purring. Certainly, there will be a clamour for him to keep his place for the visit of Tottenham this weekend.

Keita’s numbers in Genk stood out a mile. He had more touches (138), made more passes (118) and attempted more final-third passes (80) than any other player on the pitch.

Only Fabinho, in Liverpool colours, covered more distance, while nobody contested more than Keita’s 14 duels. Nobody made more tackles either, while no Liverpool player gained possession more often.

Keita was everywhere, his influence growing and growing as the game wore on.

His performance was the kind Klopp had hoped for. He had talked about Keita at his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, replying “soon!” when asked when we might see the best of the £52 million ($67m) man.

Word from Melwood is that Keita has been tearing it up in training, that he is sharper, fitter and more confident than at any stage of his Anfield career so far.

That confidence was certainly evident in Genk, where his first contribution, eight seconds into the game, was to cushion a pass to Andy Robertson. With his back.

Keita’s father nicknamed him 'Deco', while he has been likened to Andres Iniesta in the past. His fresh take on the 'back pass', though, bore the hallmarks of another ex-Barcelona star. Ronaldinho would have approved of the showmanship.

So, too, would Liverpool supporters desperate to see the former Leipzig man finally make his mark on Merseyside.

Few players have arrived at Anfield with more fanfare, the buzz around Keita heightened by the fact the Reds waited a year to get their man, handing him Steven Gerrard’s No.8 shirt when he eventually arrived. Gerrard, in fact, was there to present it in person.

So far, and for a variety of reasons, Keita’s impact has been fitful.

There have been moments – a standout performance against West Ham on his Premier League debut, a showreel turn against Crystal Palace, a run of three goals in five games back in April – but momentum, real momentum, has eluded him.

Injuries, plus Klopp’s tendency to lean towards the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson in big games, meant it was a stop-start first season.

Keita played 33 times, but started only 22 of those. Genk was only the seventh time he has completed 90 minutes as a Liverpool player.

And even there, as tidy and as classy as he looked, there were signs as to why Klopp still tends to lean towards conservatism in his midfield.

Being all-action is one thing, but much of Liverpool’s strength lies in their team structure, their positional play and familiarity. Klopp likes what he knows.

At Friday's pre-match press conference, he suggested that Fabinho was “at times pretty much the only midfielder” playing in Genk – a coded message to the attack-minded Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita.

There’s a reason why Wijnaldum and Henderson play so many games, and why Fabinho is a staple. There’s a reason why Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are given so much creative responsibility.

Liverpool’s midfield is often the first thing criticised when fans and pundits look for a flaw, but its solidity and selflessness has allowed the Reds to develop into a formidable opponent.

“The best team in the world,” said Genk midfielder Sander Berge after Wednesday’s game. That is the challenge facing any player looking to break in. Keita, clearly, has the talent to do so.

Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, he offers the potential to seriously change the way Liverpool play, to add unpredictability to the stability. His pressing ability, his dribbling and his eye for a forward pass can be transformative.

Staying fit will be key. Injuries are what damaged Keita’s first season. They weren’t especially bad ones but there were three of them, and they tended to come just when he was looking to kick on.

He started big games in Naples and in Barcelona but didn’t make it to half-time. Another muscle injury, suffered ahead of the European Super Cup in August, set him back a month at the start of this campaign.

He’s fit now, though, and it will certainly be hard for Klopp to leave him out against Tottenham. These were the kind of games, after all, he was signed to influence.

The German was not entirely pleased with his side’s display in Genk – “sometimes we took a risk in the wrong moments,” he said afterwards, calling the first-half performance “stiff” – but sources at Melwood say that he has been delighted with what he is seeing from Keita, both on and off the pitch.

On it, he is training well, improving with each session, while off it he seems to have settled too.

He has moved to Formby, where he can count Klopp among his neighbours, while his communication is markedly better than it was six months ago. He is now, Goal understands, entirely comfortable holding a conversation in English.

Good signs all round. There’s a reason why Liverpool spent so much on this player, remember. They are banking on him becoming a genuine star at Anfield.

And, after a couple of false starts, they will hope that this is just the beginning for Keita.