Following some improvements in recent Premier League matches against Wolves and Arsenal, there was confidence that Liverpool could go to Real Madrid and win. The 3-1 defeat was a disappointment, but the performance would have caused greater concern for Jurgen Klopp. Although they had more possession than their hosts (54%-46%), the Reds only managed one shot on target. They remain in the tie, but they will need to show a big improvement at Anfield.
One of the talking points to emerge from the match was the return of Naby Keita. It was a surprise to see him in the starting eleven. Some hoped that it was an opportunity for the talented midfielder to kickstart his Liverpool career. However, it could have marked the beginning of the end of his time on Merseyside. He was withdrawn before half-time with the score at 2-0 to Real Madrid and Klopp reflected after the match that it was a tactical decision.
It is rare for Klopp to make tactical changes in the first-half of a match and that underlines how poorly he viewed Keita’s performance. In his post match, the Reds’ boss commented that he could have taken off any number of players, as several were under par, but the fact that he decided on Keita speaks volumes for how he currently views the former RB Leipzig player.
During his time on the pitch, Keita did complete two dribbles and his ability to carry the ball was one of the reasons for his selection. However, he struggled to get close to the Real Madrid midfield, as he failed to make a single tackle. His passing accuracy was 85%, lower than Thiago (95%), Fabinho (93%) and Gini Wijnaldum (94%).
At the time of his signing, Keita was viewed as one of the most complete and exciting central midfield players in Europe, as he was starring for an RB Leipzig team on the rise. In his final two seasons in Germany, he contributed 14 goals and 12 assists in an entertaining team. It was hoped that he would be able to provide goals and assists in the Liverpool midfield.
He is now into his third season at Anfield and he has accumulated only 2,732 minutes of Premier League football. To provide some context, one of his midfield competitors Gini Wijnaldum has featured in 2,363 minutes in this season alone. Keita has suffered from injuries and a lack of confidence as he tries to adapt to Premier League football, but after two-and-a-half years, supporters are beginning to wonder if it will ever happen for him.
In terms of goals and assists, he has four goals and four assists in the Premier League, with a further strike coming in the Champions League. This season, he has failed to register a single goal or assist. There were clearly confidence and rhythm issues prior to this week’s defeat to Real Madrid. The decision to withdraw him early will do little to help Keita find his best form in a red shirt.
Looking deeper into his stats this season, Keita averages 2.6 shot creating actions per ninety minutes in the Premier League. This is more than Jordan Henderson (1.74) and Gini Wijnaldum (1.53), but fewer than Curtis Jones (2.73) and Xherdan Shaqiri (4.48). Meanwhile, it is on a par with summer signing Thiago Alcantara (2.59).
The biggest issue for Keita is that the role that he would favour in the Liverpool midfield is the one that Thiago has been signed to play. Fabinho is a lock for the defensive midfield position, while Gini Wijnaldum and Henderson are regular starters. The emergence of Jones and return to favour of Shaqiri provide further barriers to playing time.
Those that watched Keita regularly for Leipzig will be surprised at his lack of success at Liverpool. He did appear tailor-made for Klopp’s system, but it has never clicked for him on Merseyside. Due to the other midfield options in the squad, the summer may be the right time for the African midfielder to move on. Leicester City have been linked in recent days and that may provide an environment similar to Leipzig.
Players rarely bounce back from being withdrawn early in a Champions League quarter-final, especially considering his already low status in the Liverpool squad. A move might be best for all parties.