Premier League

Why Keïta should start the Merseyside derby

 • by Matt Gault
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There was a moment during Liverpool‘s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in which Naby Keïta, not long after he’d replaced Georginio Wijnaldum, took the ball and ran with it.

The Guinean, using his impressive burst of pace over a short distance, sprinted in between Dani Alves and Marco Verratti. As he gathered speed, the ball was swept away from his feet and earned Liverpool a corner.

Although the resulting set piece yielded nothing, the sight of a player in red breezing through the heart of the PSG midfield was refreshing.

But it was not revelatory. Jürgen Klopp had favoured containment in Paris, packing his midfield with industry and experience in the shape of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Wijnaldum.

Chasing the game, the German realised that he needed to inject ideas and invention into the middle of the park, introducing Keïta first and Xherdan Shaqiri shortly after.

Klopp cannot be begrudged his willingness to try and quell PSG’s considerable threat. Say what you want about the overall standard of Ligue 1 but the fact remains that Thomas Tuchel’s runaway leaders have scored 46 goals in 14 games in that division this season.

With Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani in attack and Ángel Di María providing a creative thrust from a slightly deeper position, Klopp’s more restrained approach was understandable, even if it did take the sting out of much of Liverpool’s play.

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Hosting Everton in the first Merseyside derby of the season is a different matter. Last season, the Reds failed to beat their rivals at Anfield in the Premier League meeting, Wayne Rooney’s late penalty snatching two points from Klopp’s grasp.

This Sunday, however, the Liverpool boss will want his side to express their superiority over an Everton side who, under the direction of Marco Silva, are showing signs of a rebirth after a dismal spell under Sam Allardyce’s stewardship.

With Henderson suspended after last week’s red card against Watford, it provides Keïta with the opportunity to kick-start his Anfield career.

And that’s what he needs. Having emerged as perhaps the Bundesliga’s most exciting midfield prospect over his two seasons with RB Leipzig, the 23-year-old has, like fellow summer signing Fabinho, been made to make peace with a gradual integration into first-team matters at Anfield.

Yet, while Fabinho had to wait until the end of October for his first Premier League start, Keïta was immediately entrusted by Klopp. He was named in the line-up in four of Liverpool’s first five league games and, while he offered flashes of quality, Klopp was evidently unimpressed with his overall output and hasn’t started him in the Premier League since September’s victory at Tottenham Hotspur.

But, with the much-vaunted front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané lacking consistent service against PSG, the time for Keïta is now.

While Klopp is likely to restore Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back and shift Joe Gomez back into his central slot alongside Virgil van Dijk, with Dejan Lovren dropping out, the German is likely to shuffle his pack further upfield, too. That should mean Keïta being given the chance to shine in a big game, to provide a thrust and momentum that is beyond Milner and Henderson.

While Klopp may be reticent about throwing Keïta into the blood-and-thunder of a derby, the midfielder showed enough during his Champions League cameo midweek to suggest that he can establish the connection between defence and attack that was sorely lacking in the French capital.

There remain some concerns over his physicality but Keïta’s technical attributes cannot be doubted. Although he has largely been a peripheral figure of late, he still ranks in the top ten for forward passes per 90 among Premier League midfielders.

With the front three effectively assured of a starting berth, Klopp’s dilemma lies in midfield. With Henderson’s absence, there is certainly a strong argument to have a seasoned head like Milner in there.

However, Keïta would provide that spark of enthusiasm and imagination that’s been fizzling out of the Reds’ recent displays; he is the player most well-equipped with pulling Everton midfielders out of position, jolting Liverpool’s attacks into life.

He’s had to bide his time, but it’s high-time Klopp unleashed Keïta.

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