In the summer of 2012, Brendan Rodgers brought a player to Liverpool who remains the signing that has excited me the most in recent years when first announced. It was only a loan signing, but when Nuri Sahin arrived at Anfield, I was beside myself with joy. Here finally was the player in central midfield Liverpool had been crying out for since Xabi Alonso left. The three interim years had seen barren service for the players further up field. In the season immediately after Xabi’s departure, Steven Gerrard started in the number 10 role but had to move back to central midfield after the team failed to get the ball to him in matches. He stayed there next year in Roy Hodgson’s defensive setup and while the attack looked good at times under Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s midfield was over run quite comfortably by opponents in 2011-12, with Javier Mascherano also having left the year before.
Liverpool had been asking too much of its captain, not knowing whether to stick him behind the striker where he could do damage or play him in central midfield and link up play. It also didn’t help that injuries were beginning to catch up with the talismanic skipper, and he did miss considerable portions of the season both in 2010-11 and 2011-12. So when Brendan Rodgers arrived with plans of a 4-3-3 with Gerrard playing wide in the front three, it looked like he had a solution lined up with Sahin.
Nuri Sahin had moved to Real Madrid at the end of the 2010-11 season after playing a huge part in Borussia Dortmund’s title win. He pulled all the strings in the middle of the park combining it with an offensive threat ending up with six goals and eight assists in 30 games. This was in addition to his defensive work, where he excelled at interceptions, winning loose balls and breaking up play with his tackling.
It was no surprise that Real Madrid came calling but having moved there carrying a medial ligament injury, he did not have the benefit of a good pre-season and found it hard to establish a regular place in Jose Mourinho’s side. The loan stint at Liverpool provided him with that opportunity but it was not to be. Gerrard did not take to the wide role well and Rodgers had to ditch the 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1. It was a toss up between Gerrard and Sahin for a central midfield position and even though Gerrard was beginning to show that he was not the player he once was, I guess it would have taken a very brave call by a manager in his first season at the club to relegate his captain to the bench.
He tried getting Sahin to play as a number 10 to accommodate him in the side, but it was a position that the player did not want to play, seeing himself as a number 8 or 6. A frustrating few months later, he was on his way back to Real Madrid, leaving me angry at the fact that a possible solution to Liverpool’s long term woes had been discarded so soon.
Meanwhile in Dortmund, they had already identified Sahin’s successor. Ilkay Gundogan had arrived from FC Nurnberg, and had slotted in seamlessly. While Sahin was reticent in playing an advanced role, Gundogan revelled in it. While not as defensively sound as Sahin, he brought other skill sets to the table. He had quick feet and was a great dribbler with great technique on the ball. While Sahin liked to spray long balls, Gundogan was more adept at the shorter passes, shifting his body well to find spaces to move into and find team mates. Another title followed for Borussia Dortmund.
Liverpool’s struggles in central midfield continued. After Sahin’s departure, Gerrard continued in a deeper role for three more seasons before leaving the club. His replacements have done a tidy job without ever being spectacular. A lot of the play in the central areas for Liverpool has been slow and plodding for a long time now, probably since the best years of Gerrard when he was a box to box presence. Liverpool have lacked a player who can take players on in that part of the field and break down teams that sit deep. A player with vision, range of passing, quick feet and the ability to break up play when required. A player like Nuri Sahin in the centre of the park and an Ilkay Gundogan further forward.
Not since Sahin in 2012 has the news of a possible arrival excited me as much as Naby Keita has in recent weeks. There have been a host of comparisons with other players that have been made, most notably with N’Golo Kante, and I have been bemused because they are not similar players. It is hard to make any comparison really because in this case for me, he is two players in one.
Think of a player who could contribute the best of what BOTH Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard had to offer at Liverpool. A player who would have done for Dortmund what BOTH Nuri Sahin and Ilkay Gundogan did. Naby Keita is not that player yet, but he has all the attributes to be that player.
I do not think it is any surprise that Jurgen Klopp has been prepared to break the bank for the player. Having made both Sahin and Gundogan the players that they became, the possibilities must be staring him right in the face. I expected Manchester City to enquire about the player, like they did recently. Pep Guardiola surely sees a bit of Gundogan, who has been injured for most of his City career, in the player.
Naby Keita is far from the complete footballer. He has demonstrated that already. He is young and he makes mistakes. He has not learnt to cut out the risks from his game yet. But he will get there and if Liverpool do land him, he will have the perfect manager for him in Klopp.
I can see why RB Leipzig have turned down two huge offers from Liverpool. After all, two-in-one players rarely come along. If the signing happens, I will be over the moon again, like I was about Sahin in 2012. If it doesn’t, the club has to move on to other targets. There is nothing one can do when the prospective selling club remains adamant about their best players. Philippe Coutinho, towards the end of last season, provided hints of what he could offer from a deeper position in midfield. You never know, maybe he is the answer to this long standing problem at Liverpool. Time will tell.