It’s still early in pre-season ahead of the 2018-19 season, and only the players who weren’t involved at the World Cup this summer so far are back and training, but there have been a few clear standouts for Liverpool over the first few games they’ve played.
In defence, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson have been impressive known quantities, while in attack Daniel Sturridge is making a strong case his time at Liverpool shouldn’t be over just yet, and young midfielder Curtis Jones has stood out amongst the youths.
Then, there are two new arrivals in midfield. Fabinho, Liverpool’s cultured new destroyer, has stood out for his calm and authoritative play. And ahead of him, there has been the feisty and creative—and comparatively diminutive—force that is Naby Keïta.
“He’s doing the right things in the right moment, that’s how good players are,” said Jürgen Klopp when asked about the impact of Keïta in particular and his role will be going forward. “We got him because he is the player he is and now we want to work with that.
“I see him as an eight, he can play ten as well—and maybe in the future he can play six as well. At Leipzig, he played as a winger, that’s for sure not his best position but he can play it because he has the speed for it, he has the football intelligence for it.
“We see him as a creative number eight playing the passes and making the runs with the ball. With the ball he has the same speed as without, you don’t have a lot of players with this quality. We know what he’s good in and we will try to fit it into our game.”
For anyone who still wasn’t sure what Keïta’s role would be at the club, those words from Klopp and his performances so far in pre-season—where he has linked up exceptionally well with Daniel Sturridge in particular—should answer any questions.
Keïta, like Liverpool’s last number eight, has the talent to play nearly anywhere. And while he might not share the stature of Liverpool’s former captain, just like Steven Gerrard the best use of Keïta’s talents is as a dynamic box-to-box player given license to roam.
Locking him into the base of midfield as a pivot player might be something he can do is asked, but it would be limiting, and one only has to have watched him linking up with and often running past Sturridge in pre-season to begin to understand that.
The promise of Keïta has been clearly on display, and it’s clear why Klopp was so eager for the club to bring him in, but the manager is expecting a lot more—from Keïta and all of his teammates—as pre-season progresses and the focus shifts away from fitness.
“He can do much better, that’s clear,” Klopp added. “He was exhausted, he was really done in the last few minutes. But football-wise he is in a very good way because he’s a naturally skilled player. In small spaces his first few yards are outstandingly quick.
“He was good in the game but maybe it was 10 minutes too long for him. Today it was very intense for both teams and we trained this morning harder than we usually would do on a matchday, but that’s how pre-season is.”