Naby Keita played an increasingly influential role for Liverpool as the season went on, and despite his future not yet being totally clear, he surely – finally – managed to prove his worth.
Despite now having racked up every major trophy in the game while with Liverpool and being a clear favourite of Jurgen Klopp throughout, there are still plenty who have not been fully convinced by the No. 8.
For some, it’s the price tag. For some, it’s the fact this was his fourth season in red and the first time he has reached 40 appearances.
Others point to constant niggling injuries and a perceived unreliability either on the ball or on the teamsheet.
These are all, of course, valid to a point and have basis in fact – yet so too does the reverse hold true.
That is, when Naby is on his game, and the Reds in full flow with their performance based on a brilliant press, he is easily, quickly and unquestionably central to much of their most electric performances.
Keita has had his best season in a Liverpool shirt, no doubt, and it comes at an opportune time for him and the club given he has just a year left on his contract.
Naby Keita, 2021/22
Started: 25 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 15
Unused sub: 7
Overall Season Rating: 8.0
Injuries and inconsistencies
It’s worth a quick look back at what has come before, and what Naby had to cope with this season.
While we all know he has missed plenty through knocks, niggles, strains and pains that seem to take him longer than others to shake, they have often stemmed from a single occasion and been knock-on effects.
A bad tackle against Barcelona, for example, or his national team opting to use him too much, too soon.
In his first two seasons he averaged 30 appearances each time; last year it was only 16.
Naby needed more, much more, this time around as the team continued to improve – so a hamstring injury in November was both less than ideal and worrisome for what might come next.
But perhaps the long-term, painstaking, patient approach taken by the coaches and physios has paid off at last.
Keita seems more robust when facing challenges and, this year, when he did get injured, it was just one setback, not three or more.
He was available for selection on a very regular basis, with that fitness base – and his performance levels – effectively making him part of a group in midfield for the final third of the campaign where three from four started almost every game.
All told, Keita was out of the squad for just a single Premier League game after January 23, right through to the end of the season.
He started two of our three cup finals and came on in the other, and didn’t miss a single Champions League knockout game.
All this, plus appearing in three group games at the Africa Cup of Nations for Guinea, before missing the round of 16 through suspension.
High class, high press
And so to his highs and lows, and the group of three-from-four.
But it was rarely quite as cut-and-dried as that, with Keita stepping in for Thiago on the left of the three with frequency too, while of course, the captain filled in at No. 6 on occasions.
Either way, Keita had a dual role in midfield this season: the left-sided controlling No. 8 or the right-sided player.
On the left, he was slightly deeper, reserved, retaining possession and attempting to feed passes into the final third; on the right, more aggressive in attacking positions, bursting into the box when the opportunity presented itself and more ball-carries if space is on show.
In both roles, Keita had a high-value job to do of pressing in high, dangerous areas, often involved in fast turnovers which either created chances or stopped counters.
In addition to that, he showed a rarely-seen side of his game with a willingness to shoot from the edge, or even outside, of the box – to very different outcomes.
Some dribbled wide and barely looked like having the power to reach the goal.
The late Champions League final shot was poorly executed, but has been abysmally used by some to determine Keita’s quality – or even fault for the defeat.
Keita may have had a slightly up-and-down season overall, like all players tend to, but this was easily his best season and very comfortably a campaign where his very good outweighed his average.
A new contract?
It proves to be a pivotal summer for this current crop, then: Mane is pushing for a move to Bayern Munich, Oxlade-Chamberlain is on the market and the club are desperately seeking to agree new terms with Salah.
Firmino and Adrian find their futures up in the air, but for Keita, all signs point to a new deal with talks underway.
That would certainly be deserved based on the breakthrough made in 2021/22 – with the future looking bright for an increasingly important cog in Klopp’s midfield.
Best moment: Taking out his wondergoal against Palace, an all-round battering of Man United had Keita at the heart of the lot: the irrepressible tempo, plenty of the scoring chances and the red card to Paul Pogba.
Worst moment: Being left out of the League Cup final wouldn’t have been great, but he was quickly called into the lineup with Thiago‘s injury. No such reversal of fortunes for the Champions League final.
Role next season: Assuming he signs a new contract, he’ll again be a first-team regular and a big part of the midfield rotation.