Naby Keita - The Admiral - holds a very special place in my heart. The mix of skill and verve, and given his position in the heart of the pitch, he ticks all the boxes of what I admire most in football.
It is a bit strange given that my entire so-humble-as-to-be-impoverished career as a footballer was generally spent as a wide forward or second striker, but I love central midfielders so much. Perhaps that is all due to how my introduction to the game beyond AYSO was rooted in the 1994 World Cup hosted in the US. The player I found myself most idolizing and transfixed by was central midfielder Tab Ramos.
I never had to coolness of head and quality of feet to play in a midfield role. I wanted to either get rid of the ball quickly or have it be passed onto me while in stride and bursting into the opposition penalty area. I didn’t want the pressure of being caught out with the ball - to be found out as a fraud, as it were - in my half of the pitch. So, my anxieties and fears elevated the role of central midfielders. They were the engine, the heart, the glue of a team. They needed to blend the ability to defend and provide magic to open up spaces for the attackers. They were the engineers of beautiful football.
Naby Keita’s life with Liverpool has been less centered on the beautiful football he’s capable of and more centered on life on the training table. Which is, of course, a deep shame for a bright career that some are anxiously observing as potentially dimming. It’s never fun to see potential unmet due to the cruel twists of fate related to a string of injuries.
As a fan of Liverpool Football Club for the past 9 years, I’ve sadly got experience in rooting for star-crossed footballers.
Daniel Sturridge was the first Liverpool player I truly loved. And that was probably because I’d fallen for him before I was even a Liverpool fan.
Back in the days before NBC Sports made Premier League matches widely available - an era I like to call “My EPL Agnostic” era - the limited club soccer that I took in was heavily centered on the involvement of members of the US Men’s National Team. I recall that Stuart Holden, a promising prospect at the time, was breaking through on Owen Coyle’s Bolton side. When I tuned in, I caught an interview with Stu and Coyle which featured an on-loan Daniel Sturridge.
The package showed glimpses of training and, from the off, Sturridge was the one who took hold of my focus. It was clear by his technique that he was a classy footballer. In the drills, he took on defenders with ease and practiced a close control that many 10’s would have been jealous of. When being interviewed, he gave off a charm and dedication to the craft that spoke of an intense desire to succeed. I had no doubt that this guy had the goods.
The rest is, as they say, history: Sturridge signs for us, goes on a historic 18 month window of goal scoring eclipsed only by the incandescent play of Luis Suarez, and then succumbs to injury after injury, robbing him of the physical gifts that complemented his truly elegant skill. My heart breaking with each new stint in rehab. Then, finally, when he ended his tenure with the club.
Though, at least, I’m glad he got the send off he deserved: goals against PSG in the Champions League and a winner’s medal to boot.
It’s easy, I think, to project these fears now onto Naby. That before he’d signed, it was clear he was one of the most promising midfielders in the entire game. And with each successive injury, it feels we’re getting further and further from that.
Like Sturridge, the flashes of brilliance in each of his turns through the team when healthy are absolutely tantalizing. The sumptuous passing range. The ability to see and find seams. The composure on the ball. It all makes things more difficult when he has ended up back on the trainer’s table after matches like the second fixture against Genk in the Champions League. He looked like he was putting it all together.
The difference, though, is that when he’s on the pitch, unlike Sturridge, Naby doesn’t look to have been robbed of any physical ability. He still glides past defenders and can turn on the gas if needed. His skill doesn’t look gone - only the sharpness that is elusive due to not playing on a weekly basis.
That, at least to this point, it isn’t an issue of an injury and failed rehabs robbing the body as much as the injuries stealing time. Time from him on the pitch. Time from us witnessing his brilliance.
Jurgen Klopp has indicated that Keita is potentially in contention to feature against Shrewsbury Town in this weekend’s FA Cup match. And while I’ll always root for an opportunity to finally see The Admiral command the pitch as he is meant to, for now my biggest hope is that when he features, he will be healthy and fully recovered.