What next for Keita? Liverpool's £53m-man facing uncertain future after Madrid humiliation

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On reflection, it was a moment which spoke volumes about Naby Keita’s professionalism, as well as his struggles.

To be substituted before half-time in any game is bad enough, but for it to happen in a Champions League quarter-final, against a club like Real Madrid, with the eyes of the world watching?

Humiliation.

One can only imagine the reaction of some of Keita’s Liverpool team-mates, had they been confronted with the same situation.

Would Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane have been able to conceal their disgust? Could James Milner or Trent Alexander-Arnold have taken Jurgen Klopp’s call in such calm, measured fashion?

No chance.

Keita had been a surprise starter in Madrid, to say the least, with Klopp gambling on the Guinea international’s wildcard qualities, his energy and dribbling prowess. His performances in training, the Reds boss said, had been impossible to ignore.

“He is in a really good moment, and brings special things in,” Klopp added.

Famous last words, eh? Keita lasted just 42 minutes, replaced by Thiago Alcantara with Liverpool 2-0 down and playing like a collection of strangers. The Reds have played two matches since, and their £52.75 million ($73m) midfielder has been an unused substitute in both.

Where does he go from here, then? It feels like we ask that question every couple of months, in all honesty. There are many uncertainties at Anfield right now, and the future of the third-most expensive player in the club’s history is certainly among them.

Naby Keita Liverpool GFX

The game in Madrid was only his ninth start of the season, and only his second in the Champions League. The other was in a group stage dead-rubber away to FC Midtjylland in December, when he was in midfield alongside a 19-year-old debutant, Leighton Clarkson.

In the Premier League there have been seven starts, but he has completed 90 minutes only twice. He was hooked at half-time when Liverpool lost 7-2 at Aston Villa in October, and has been replaced before the hour-mark on two other occasions.

He still gets chances, but consistency and rhythm continues to elude him.

The statistics say it all. Since Keita’s arrival from RB Leipzig in 2018, Liverpool have played 156 games in all competitions, but he has featured in only 76 of them, and started only 46.

Yes, Klopp’s faith in the likes of Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and the evergreen Milner is clear, and yes Thiago arrived last summer to bolster the midfield options, but this season Keita sits behind the likes of Curtis Jones, Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino in the appearances list. Minamino, of course, joined Southampton on loan in January.

How frustrating it must be, certainly for the club but definitely for the player. Keita has won trophies on Merseyside, and there have been flashes of the attributes which convinced Liverpool to wait a year for his arrival, but this was a transfer which promised so much more than flashes. Three years in, it is fair to say it has not worked out as planned.

“His quality is undisputed,” Christoph Freund, the sporting director of Red Bull Salzburg, Keita’s former club, told Goal last month. “Naby has exceptional footballing qualities, but the injuries mean he has not got into the rhythm he needs to be able to show that.”

Naby Keita Liverpool quote GFX

He is not alone. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another midfielder struggling to impact games on a regular basis, while Minamino, a shrewd-looking capture from Salzburg last January, has had to go on loan in search of game-time.

Liverpool’s is, at its best at least, a very specific way of playing, relying hugely on discipline and automatic movements. Its midfield, in particular, must be compact, positionally perfect and able to retain both concentration and intensity for 90 minutes. That is why Klopp loves Wijnaldum, and why Henderson’s absence has been so keenly felt.

And when one piece of the midfield puzzle is out of place, the impact on the rest of the team is huge. It affects the full-backs, exposes the centre-backs, reduces the supply line to the front three. The whole house begins to tumble.

Keita was not solely to blame for that in Madrid, nor against Villa earlier in the season. Wijnaldum and Fabinho started both those games too, and neither could come away proud of their performance.

But those two have mega credit in the bank, as far as Klopp is concerned. They have his trust, from the start and until the end, no matter the occasion. Keita is still searching for that faith.

There is no suggestion, yet, that Liverpool are ready to give up on him. There will be a number of first-team exits at Anfield in the summer, with the likes of Wijnaldum, Origi and Shaqiri all likely to depart, but sources have told Goal that Keita is very much a part of Klopp’s plans for next season. They are not contemplating a sale.

But he has to start delivering soon. He will soon enter the final two years of his contract, a time when the club will begin to decide whether to renew or to cash in. At present, it is hard to make a compelling case for a lucrative new deal.

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Only performances can change that, of course. Klopp sought Keita out after the disappointment in Madrid, explaining his decision and reassuring him that he was not carrying the can for what was a pretty dismal team performance. “He accepted it,” he told reporters.

But with the race for a top-four finish heating up, will he be prepared to gamble on Keita again before the end of the season?

If he does, then it simply has to pay off. If it does not, then it's hard to see where they would go from there.