When new transfers join a football club, the amount of time it takes them to fall into the system varies. Some players adapt immediately, others take more time, whether it’s due to teammate’s tendencies or personal tactical adjustments. Naby Keïta’s time at Liverpool would be considered the latter. This was evident through the analysis of this past weekend’s match against Tottenham Hotspur.
Liverpool often build up through the full backs playing down the touchlines. The midfielders and wingers in a 4-3-3 will play diagonal passing with the full-backs to advance the ball, in this match, most notably James Milner and Mohamed Salah, with Trent Alexander-Arnold.(fig. 1) Mohamed Salah receives the ball and plays a lay-off to Trent Alexander-Arnold. Milner moves forward along the edge of the pitch overlapping Salah. (fig. 2) Alexander-Arnold passes forward to Milner, who beats his defender and crosses it into Roberto Firmino who nearly scores a goal.
Keïta, who thrives best in the half-spaces of the pitch, will learn this tactic with time but currently, is not accustomed to consistently playing in the wider areas.
In the attacking phase, Keïta sets up multiple breaks, nearly every time, by playing the ball from a position within the half-spaces. There were a couple opportunities for Keïta to even score his first goal for the club, were it not for a mental mistake or two from the other attackers.A counter-attack, led by Salah, sees Mané on the ball with an open Keïta to his left, but Mané decides instead to attempt a shot himself. He does manage to hit the target, but a pass to Keïta would certainly have been a better opportunity.
Another tactic that is taking time for Keïta to gel with his teammates in, is pressing. Keïta excelled in a vertical, high-tempo gameplan involving gegenpressing at RB Leipzig. While this also accurately describes Liverpool’s now-renowned system installed by Jürgen Klopp (hence why the club bought him), the plan for this specific match didn’t involve pressing as heavily as usual.Here, we see the Spurs in possession. Keïta is looking for Sadio Mané to run forward and press Toby Alderweireld, but instead, the winger is well behind Keïta. Mané eventually does come up to press, but by then, a long ball was hit over the two players and ended in a Spurs corner-kick. Keïta possibly wanted Mané to press the ball in front of him, so they could team up and force a breakaway, via either a poor pass intercepted by Keïta or a tackle by Mané; both would’ve resulted in a promising counter-attack.
While the pressing wasn’t as often, as is typical of Liverpool, there were still multiple times when that signature press shined, and Keïta was a central part of a number of them.(fig. 1) This is just one example out of a few throughout the match of how Keïta can start an effective counter-attack using team pressing. The press is begun by Milner, here, as soon as Dembélé receives the ball. Dembélé immediately passes the ball away due to the pressure, resulting in an errant hit. (fig. 2) Keïta capitalises on the mistake by quickly releasing Mané with a forward pass. Unfortunately, the decision-making by the front three, this match, was not it’s best, and here, Mané’s soft attempt on goal is saved by the keeper Michel Vorm.
It is a somewhat similar situation to Keïta’s former teammate Timo Werner and his style of play with the German National Team. Werner is acclimated to an intense, counter-attacking team playing style. So, when Joachim Löw prepared a World Cup system of heavy possession in the opponent’s half, it rendered the skills Werner specialised in. Liverpool, of course, won’t stop pressing altogether. They are still very much a counter-pressing side, and Keïta will play a vital role in this tactic, in future matches.
This average performance from Keïta resulted in the Guinean being benched for the club’s first Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain. But this doesn’t mean the move to Liverpool won’t work out. There was evidence in the season opener against West Ham that he clearly can play a vital role in carrying the ball. As with Fabinho, some players take time to gel with their new club. I believe Keïta’s issue is largely this. The game against Spurs wasn’t the cleanest, and in a more organized match, Keïta might have had more success.