By 90Min
August 14, 2018

When Naby Keita turned up to Melwood in June to be presented with his new number 8 shirt, he was shocked to find it's previous incumbent waiting to do the honours.

Steven Gerrard became synonymous with the number 8 during his time at Anfield, but it has been absent since he left the club in 2015. Liverpool could easily have transferred it to one of their existing midfielders, but it felt as if they were waiting for a player who could step into Gerrard's shoes, not just his shirt.

In Keita, they may have finally found that man. Liverpool fans have been waiting to see the Guinean midfielder in action for over a year since the Reds agreed his transfer from RB Leipzig last summer, and he didn't disappoint on his competitive debut.

James Williamson - AMA/GettyImages

Keita ran the show as Liverpool thrashed West Ham 4-0 on Sunday with the sort of performance that suggests they could actually live up to the hype and help the Mighty Reds challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title. In many ways it was like watching the Liverpool of last season, barring one significant difference.

Ever since Gerrard left, Liverpool have lacked that dynamic presence in the heart of midfield; a player who can pick up the ball in a deep position and charge at a terrified defence, before tracking back to make a winning tackle and starting the process all over again.

Of course, Liverpool have not wanted for terrifying forwards since Gerrard left. Philippe Coutinho and Mo Salah can both turn on a dime and produce world-class finishes. But their domain is the final third, whereas Gerrard's was between the halfway line and the box.

It's that gap between the opposition's defence and midfield which Liverpool must utilise better, and within 20 minutes of Keita's debut he did just that. Receiving the ball near the centre circle, he advanced into space, giving him time to assess his options and lay the ball out to Andrew Robertson. Robertson's cross was spot-on for Salah's run, and Liverpool had their first goal of the season.

For Keita to link up so well with his teammates in his first match was mightily impressive. But, as Jurgen Klopp knew when he signed him, the role the 23-year-old played at Leipzig is almost identical to the one he's taken up at Anfield. New teammates might take some getting used to, but the system is very familiar.

Keita's manager and his teammates will quickly grow to love him, not just for his ability but also his versatility. When Klopp replaced Roberto Firmino with Jordan Henderson midway through the second half on Sunday, Keita moved into a role wide on the left and looked no less comfortable there. 

James Milner, who provided a brilliant assist for Liverpool's second goal against the Hammers, was full of praise for his new teammate. "He is a ball winner with great drive and fantastic ability. I have seen him get out of some ridiculous situations in training where he had no right to do it," he said, quoted by Sky Sports News.

Milner in particular will love playing alongside Keita. The 12 assists he provided last year (9 in the Champions League, 3 in the Premier League) were more than Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can combined. Impressive, but Liverpool should not be relying on a 32-year-old as their most creative midfielder.

Milner's assist on Sunday showed that Keita's presence won't limit his creativity, but it will be a relief that there is now less of a burden resting on his shoulders. He can more freely help out in defence, where he is equally competent, knowing that Keita will continue to lead the charge forwards.


One thing that Keita will have to rein in at Anfield is his aggression, an attribute for which he was infamous in Germany. He served three separate suspensions last season, two for red cards and one for amassing five yellow cards.

Yet even this is reminiscent of Gerrard, a famously tempestuous character during the early years of his career. Eventually he learned to control his aggression but it remained part of his game throughout his career, as anyone who saw him sent off within 40 seconds of coming on against Manchester United in his final season will testify.

Gerrard was sent off eight times for club and country throughout his career, but if you removed the aggression from his game then you would end up with a much lesser player. Just look at Roy Keane, or Patrick Vieira - every player in that mould has to have fire in his belly if he wants to be a success. 

Aggression can be a dangerous weapon, and it will require a collaborative effort from Klopp and Keita to ensure that the Guinean turns the dagger against his opponents rather than himself. It's no good having that intensity if you end up missing half the season due to suspension.

Keita's goal-scoring is not yet his strongest suit, but he shows similar promise to Gerrard at the same age. Despite his reputation as a goalscorer, it wasn't until 2006, at the age of 25, that Gerrard first hit double figures for a league season. There's plenty of goals in this Liverpool team already, but having another player who can chip in with eight or nine more certainly won't hurt.

Comparisons to Gerrard - or to N'Golo Kante for that matter - may be premature. Yet it feels as if there is something special brewing at Anfield, and Naby Keita may not be the final ingredient, but he's certainly going to spice things up.

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