COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The gruelling slog that is December is one of the Premier League's unique selling points, an anachronism rooted in self-importance. Rail against it, flail against it, but it is the great graven image before which every manager must bow.
Liverpool's concession to the coming storm was to field a very experimental side at Turf Moor in midweek: a decidedly understrength attack and rejigged defence trotted out with a view to getting some of the team's heavy hitters a breather.
What followed was a lot of toil and sweat, the sort that is simultaneously necessary, due to the demands of the coming weeks, and unnecessary, because of Burnley's place in the relegation zone.
If the Clarets' demonstrable aim was to bring the Reds down a shade or two, the presence of the thoroughbred Naby Keita in midfield was all that kept Liverpool's play from devolving into outright chaos. At times on the night, and especially in a first half where the hosts looked the more dangerous side, the Guinea international was the lone agent of control and quality in midfield.
It was a performance that has been long in coming, the sort of display that was promised when Liverpool forked over in excess of £50 million a year in advance to get their man.
Last season saw Liverpool consolidate the Klopp heavy metal-ethos, sparking an exciting run to the Champions League final. There was, however, an acknowledgement that greater creativity from midfield was needed if the team was to make a proper fist of competing again, especially in the Premier League.
Held up against the riches of Manchester City's virtuoso midfield of Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, the likes of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner seem decidedly workmanlike.
While that tireless running and energy gave the Reds the upper hand over Pep Guardiola's men in head-to-head encounters last season, it came with a huge physical tax that saw them fall short over the course of the league campaign.
Wednesday's game was precisely the sort in which Klopp's side might have dropped points last season, against a Burnley side equipped for the fight and capable of reducing the game to a scrap.
This is what makes Keita's contribution to this Liverpool all the more pertinent; capable of getting into the scrap (he won five duels), but retaining the quality to glide through it and emerge with the ball, the 23-year-old constantly provided forward impetus on the night: hitting the target four times (more than any other player on the pitch) and striking the frame of the goal as well.
One might look at that and curse the misfortune that has stymied his influence so far this season; Burnley away marked his first start since going off injured on Matchday 2 of the Champions League at Napoli.
However, more useful would be to look to the redemptive potential of the future, both immediate (fittingly, the Italians visit Anfield for the final group game next week) and long-term, i.e the rest of the league campaign.
Impressively, despite a less than stellar run of performances, Liverpool have kept pace somewhat with Manchester City at the top of the table.
However, the tight nature of some of the results is problematic, as it requires more effort to force a result than to control a game—witness the ease with which Guardiola's side win a game with time to spare, and then can take a breather in the match's final stages.
Keita's return brings that crucial element of control, and with it the benefit of expending less effort in service of a result.
As the games start to come thick and fast, his creative running, poise and calmness in possession will be important in keeping the Reds withing touching distance of a first league title in almost 30 years.