Anxiety is a common emotion running through Liverpool fandom. One might say it’s off the moment, but I feel it’s true as a general matter of course among us. This season it’s about the title race. Most seasons it’s about the how well the team is playing. Once, it was about whether or not Charlie Adam was a thing. Rooting for Liverpool is a mental and emotional rollercoaster.
One of the players who has existed as a source of anxiety in the minds of Reds fans of late is Naby Keita. Or, as autocorrect might have you believe: Navy/Baby Keith. The midfield dynamo transferred from RB Leipzig over the summer after a protracted and much hyped negotiation and has taken some time to acclimate to the needs and demands of Jurgen Klopp’s system at Liverpool.
The coming out of certain segments of our fandom made me think about a lot of things. Patience. Player development. The inflexibility of narratives.
But a thing that floated to the surface and sat with me was this sense that the narratives around Naby all had shades of falsehoods. That there was something pulling at the idea of Naby as belonging to this project. That the Naby we saw in highlight clips and we were reported to be getting might not exist. That he may have been a bit of an imposter.
Sports fandom in general is obsessed with results. That’s because the nature of sports as a medium lends itself to this false belief that on any given pitch or field or court or ring, all is stripped away and what is left is pure meritocracy. That the nature of the contest is an example of the cream rising to the top. A microcosm, I suppose, of what people hope exists in free, democratic societies.
Life, of course, is more complex. And even in sports, we know that the image of true meritocracy to be rather hollow. What else can we ascribe the lovable underdog trope or the existence of outmanned and outgunned sides overcoming the odds to win if not the fact that, sometimes, the best don’t win?
And so looking at the fact that a player as talented and with as limitless in potential and skill as Naby Keita is would necessarily struggle to adapt to a new league tells us very little except that he is, in fact, human and not an android. That Keita is someone susceptible to the same any player would face when entering new environs and being saddles with new expectations seems obvious. Yet, looking out at the landscape of armchair commentary, it appears that’s not the case.
It is perhaps that sense of appraisal from the fandom that made me appreciate the comments of Jurgen Klopp following Keita’s best full performance to date - one that built on the positive flashes in his last few runs out. When approached by reporters, Klopp indicated that he believed Naby was finally where he wanted to be and that he always had time to wait for him to reach this spot.
Patience, then, is what was afforded to the promising center midfielder. Patience that is seemingly on the cusp of being fully rewarded.
There is a term out there for the internalized struggle many people feel when reaching a new level. One that pits all of their insecurities and points them inwards such that it makes them believe they have not earned the faith that all of the work and education and experience they’ve gained has brought them in their new place.
I thought about that as I read the analysis from fans bemoaning their disappointment in Keita’s progress this season. Not because Keita showed signs of struggling with it himself - until he opens up about his experience thus far, no one can really ever know, right? But because the responses from the fandom seemed to indicate that Naby was somehow not all he was made up to be. An imposter.
It also made me wonder about the times I’d wondered the same about myself and how I struggled - still do - to reconcile my insecurities with the faith placed in me by people I admire via various opportunities or co-signs of my work. How could I, a humble [fill in the blank] ever deign to rub elbows with people I think so highly of? I still can’t believe, for example, that I get to write this column on a site that once hosted the works of Trev, ELiz, Chuck, and Ed. That still makes space for the amazing talents currently crafting words on the travails of Liverpool Football Club.
So I sat, thinking of the windy journey this season has been thus far for Naby Keita. And I wondered how I might respond to the calls that I wasn’t enough and it dug deep in me. Maybe this little jump in his performances will reveal itself to be a small blip on a career that barely registers when all is said and done. Or maybe it will be the inverse in that it will be the rocky start that will make way to an ascendence to a slew of performances that will reveal the Real Naby Keita was what was advertised all along.
Whatever the case, the real nugget is that the only agency any of us have in these hinge-filled moments - the ones that indicate things could go a myriad of ways with hope and fear often tugging in opposite directions - lies in the doing. All Naby can do right now is continue to learn and, piece-by-piece, erect for us an image of him that is real and true. One that can withstand further scrutiny and will stand sturdier than the facsimiles peddled as authentic. It’s all any of us can do to break down the imposters floating around us, obscuring our true selves. Both to the world outside and to that most cantankerous and ruthless critic of all: our very own eyes.