Naby Keita’s Premier League debut may have been 12 months in the making, but against West Ham he performed as if he’d been under the auspices of Jurgen Klopp for his entire career.
Keita and Co romped to a 4-0 win against West Ham on the opening weekend, with Mohamed Salah – who else – opening the scoring before butter-smooth Sadio Mane grabbed a brace and substitute Daniel Sturridge added late polish.
But below we focus on Keita’s performance, who pulled on a red shirt in a competitive outing for the first time since his signing from RB Leipzig was announced back in August 2017.
Passes – 68
Passing accuracy –88.2%
Key passes –1
The Guinean, in a midfield three alongside Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner, was noticeably by far the furthest forward – to such extent that he could be described as the Reds’ fourth attacker.
West Ham’s middle men allowed him far too much space to run at the defence and play in Andrew Robertson, who promptly supplied Salah for the opener.
Once Roberto Firmino came off for Jordan Henderson in the 70th minute, Liverpool switched to a 4-4-2 diamond and Keita drifted out to the left, where he looked comfortable against the hapless Hammers.
Keita has often been described as a box-to-box midfielder and while it is one adequate description of his talents, it is only a part of the puzzle.
Indeed ‘box-to-box’ suggests energy, crunching tackles and bombing forward without hinting at the subtler parts of his game. The 23-year-old is so much more – as evidenced by his passing.
He played in some deliciously weighted balls to Liverpool’s trident and while his pass for Robertson for the opener was hardly an eye of the needle scenario, the tempo in attack never missed a beat when he was on the ball.
While his dribbling and tackling ability were both on show, his subtle link-up play – already meshing well with Salah and friends – should be particularly pleasing to Reds fans.
Naby Keita's Premier League debut by numbers:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 12, 2018
89% pass accuracy
18 passes in the final third
8 ball recoveries
1 take-on completed
1 tackle won
1 key pass
Engine. 🚗🚗🚗 pic.twitter.com/xjorfZJ0z0
It’s hard to put a blot against Keita’s name, but once or twice the fast and furious press that Klopp likes to deploy saw him concede position in midfield.
It’ll probably just be an adjustment period – but the objective in the press is to either force the opposition back or get them to play a risky pass. Keita overran a couple of times, giving the man in possession the easy task of evading him.
It’s important not to go overboard on this performance. West Ham’s midfield, as it stands, is one of the weakest in the league with Mark Noble and youngster Declan Rice completely swamped on the day.
Indeed Keita won’t be given so much time and space frequently in the Premier League – but there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t create it for himself.
He arrived at a well-drilled team that required just a few artful finishing touches, and Keita’s qualities mean he could prove the masterstroke.
RATING – 8/10
Liverpool supporters flooded into the gates at Anfield on Sunday afternoon with high expectations and left fully satisfied, perhaps already dreaming of a first top-flight title in 28 years.
An emphatic 4-0 victory was the perfect way to begin that quest for glory. But it was the performance against West Ham rather than the scoreline that would’ve encouraged manager Jurgen Klopp.
It featured everything we’ve come to expect from a stellar Liverpool display. The pace in attack was frightening as the fearsome front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane picked up where they left off last season, leaving defenders tripping over themselves as they hurriedly retreated.
Klopp’s trademark ‘gegenpressing’ was executed with great effect as new signing Naby Keita impressed with an action-packed performance in which his closing down and driving runs shone through. The balance he helped bring to the midfield was apparent as the Reds blended surging attacks with composed spells of possession.
Big-money signing Alisson on the other hand had little to do between the sticks, while Joe Gomez partnered Virgil van Dijk in central defence as the back-line were largely faultless. The youngster’s assured display was testament to Liverpool’s strength in depth – something they’ve significantly improved over the summer which was reflected in the composition of their midfield, as well.
Fabinho was denied his competitive Liverpool debut as he remained an unused substituted, while James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum joined Keita in the middle, both boasting impressive form. The Englishman’s work ethic and overall play was hardly curtailed by the thick bandage around his head, concealing 15 stitches. He was heavily involved in his side’s build-up play, leading the way for most passes (102) and key passes (3).
With Jordan Henderson missing as well, Wijnaldum played as the number six at the base of the midfield three and excelled in the role. As the Hammers retreated deeper and deeper into their own area, the Dutchman spread play beautifully, switching play quickly. He registered a 100-per-cent success rate with his nine long balls, speaking volumes of his ability to spread play and stretch the opposition’s defence.
All of these individual displays bodes well for Liverpool and is perhaps foremost among their credentials as title contenders. The competition for places is going to be fierce this season with the arrival of Switzerland winger Xherdan Shaqiri or the possibility of incorporating another man in midfield and going with two up top – as they did for a spell against West Ham – rendering even the starting berths of their attacking triumvirate uncertain.
Bring the likes of Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the equation as well and you get the full picture. Klopp has a plethora of personnel and tactical options at his disposal and that’s the mark of title-winning team. He had little to call on when Salah had to go off injured in the Champions League final against Real Madrid last season. A shallow, albeit rich, talent pool will not be a drawback this term.
A summer splurge upwards of £170 million has thrust Liverpool into the spotlight with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho predictably among those suggesting that they ‘must’ win trophies this season following such lavish spending. Despite the added pressure, the Reds will be confident of rising to the challenge.
The mood within the camp and among their passionate fan base was never better heading into a season than it was this summer. A convincing dismantling of West Ham in their opening fixture was most crucial in its role of carrying forward that pre-season hype into the start of the campaign. Given their slip-ups against lesser teams last season, this result also serves as a statement of intent from the Reds in their efforts to rectify that shortcoming.
With clashes against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Leicester City to follow, this optimism could quickly turn into unwavering belief – the kind which translates into their players going into every game expecting to win and often snatching victory when they’re up against it.
Otherwise known as title-winning form.
After a fine 2017/18 in which they were the great entertainers, much is being expected of Jurgen Klopp’s side – who are being tipped as champions Manchester City’s main title threat.
On this evidence, that is justified, with this 4-0 triumph their biggest win on the first day of the season since Steve McManaman and Ian Rush both bagged braces in a 6-1 thrashing of Crystal Palace in 1994.
Here we rate the Liverpool players.
Alisson – 6: Will be content if this is the sort of action he sees all season. Supremely comfortable debut, completing tasks with minimum fuss.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7: Foraged down the right as he started ahead of Clyne. Will look to make the position his own this season. Led Liverpool with four tackles.
Joe Gomez – 7: With Lovren not fit and Klavan injured, took his chance to impress. Didn’t look out of place. Four clearances led his side.
Virgil van Dijk – 7: Dealt superbly with the dangerous Arnautovic. What little he had to do, he did so with consummate ease.
Andrew Robertson – 8: A constant menace. Fine low cross put goal on a plate for Salah and played a big part in the second. Always carried a threat bombing forward.
James Milner – 8: As West Ham switched off, the veteran stayed sharp and brilliantly hooked across goal, giving Mane a tap-in for 2-0. Relentless as always.
Naby Keita – 9: He is going to be brilliant, isn’t he? Busy, boisterous and contributing in attack, he orchestrated the move for the opening goal.
Georginio Wijnaldum – 6: Hummed quietly alongside the ball of energy that is Keita. Had a few wayward shots.
Mohamed Salah – 7: Picked up from where he left off last season. Doesn’t look like second season syndrome will be a factor. Scored, although he still looks a little off his best.
Roberto Firmino – 7: Sniped and slalomed between the lines, slipping in a fine assist for Mane’s (admittedly offside) second.
Sadio Mane – 9: Didn’t see the best of him at the World Cup but sharp and alert, pouncing to score a brace.
Jordan Henderson – 6: Cameo from the captain. An easy runout when 3-0 up.
Xherdan Shaqiri N/A: Looked sharp and lively in the few minutes he had.
Daniel Sturridge N/A: Super sub. Scored with his first touch seconds after coming on.