Security Blanket Reds Need To Help Keita Shine

 • by Sam McGuire
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Naby Keïta hasn’t yet kicked a ball for Liverpool but there’s a belief, held by many, that he’s going to be one of the best midfielders in the the Premier League.

His all-action performances for RB Leipzig, which have seen him dominate teams in both the Bundesliga and in Europe, seem perfectly suited to the end-to-end style of the English top flight.

In Jürgen Klopp‘s Reds side the game is all about the transitions. Players who thrive in the German’s system need to be able to turn a defensive situation into an attacking one but at the same time ensure they’re in a good position to cover if there’s a turnaround in possession.

Part of the 23-year-old’s appeal is the illusion he’s everywhere at all times.

If the Liverpool manager could design his perfect midfielder it wouldn’t be too dissimilar to Keïta, who put in a man-of-the-match performance against Bayern Munich in his last outing. He has all the traits necessary to thrive at Anfield.

That’s not to suggest he won’t need some assistance, though. And a security blanket isn’t the worst idea. Those on Merseyside have a special talent at their disposal and need to do all they can to create the perfect environment for him to flourish.

It’s why recent links to Wilfred Ndidi make a lot of sense. According to African journalist Alpha Balde, the Reds have ‘approached’ the Leicester City midfielder and Ndidi has given his ‘consent’ to a move.

No fee has yet been agreed with the 2015/16 Premier League champions and that may prove to be a stumbling block, with the Foxes believing he’s worth north of £40million in the current market.

It may seem a steep fee for a player with just two goals and four assists to his name despite having played over 4,500 minutes for Leicester since moving to the King Power in the January of 2017. But there are a few things worth remembering.

He wasn’t signed by the Foxes to be a goal threat but instead to fill the N’Golo Kanté shaped hole in their starting XI, which he has done. It’s also worth noting Jordan Henderson has been directly involved in just seven goals since the start of the 2016/17 season, and only two since January 2017 because of injury.

So the lack of offensive output from Ndidi shouldn’t be a concern. After all, how much is it worth to see an unshackled Keïta unleashed on unsuspecting Premier League clubs?

In RB Leipzig’s 2-1 win over Bayern, the Guinean was used in more of an attacking position in a new look 3-4-3 system and he ran riot. He finished the match with an xG+xA90 (expected goals plus expected goal assists) total of 1.33.

The arrival of the Nigeria international could help the former Red Bull Salzburg man acclimatise to the Premier League. His inclusion would allow Keïta to do what he’s best at and that can only be a positive for those in red.

How Ndidi compares to the Liverpool midfielders

Before reading too much into the above graphic there are a few caveats that need to be taken into account.

Firstly, the Leicester man is used in a two man midfield. His instructions will be different to his Liverpool counterparts, who operate in a midfield three, and he’ll have much more ground to cover. This could go someway to explaining why he leads the way in tackles won and interceptions per 90 minutes.

Stylistically, the two teams are different and this will impact the stats they’re putting out.

Liverpool average 57 per cent possession, ten per cent more than the Foxes. Klopp’s men also complete 83.4 per cent of their passes, way up on Leicester’s 73.9 per cent. And finally Claude Puel‘s team average 7.2 shots fewer than the Merseyside club per game and are 192 passes shy on what the Champions League quarter-finalists average in a league game.

In the air, however, there are very few better than Ndidi. The need for a player like that might be overlooked but it is necessary with Keïta, standing at 5ft 6ins, winning just 0.9 aerial duels per 90 in the Bundesliga.

What is interesting is the Leicester man plays 65 per cent of his passes forward – an almost identical percentage to Henderson and seven per cent more than Emre Can – it’s worth noting the Liverpool No.23 has played in a more advanced role meaning there are sometimes fewer options for him to play a pass forward.

But it shows Ndidi is eager to be on the front foot when in possession. In terms of key passes, he falls short but it’s to be expected. And Keïta more than makes up for it. The pair average a combined 0.43 xG+xA90 this season. For context, Henderson, Can and Gini Wijnaldum have an xG+xA90 average this season of 0.49.

There’s just a 0.07 difference but a midfield two of Keita and Ndidi allow Liverpool to field another forward player which makes the team more of a threat.

This is what makes the idea an intriguing one.

Earlier in the season, Klopp used a 4-2-2-2 shape in the 4-1 win over West Ham United. There have been glimpses of it in matches since then but it’s not been as prominent. Take the 5-0 win over Watford for example.

On paper it was the usual 4-3-3 system but when attacking Wijnaldum would join Sadio Mané behind Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino in attack with James Milner and Henderson sitting deeper.

If the Liverpool boss wants to transition to a two-man midfield next season then Keïta and Ndidi work. They’ve both played, and excelled, in similar systems. It could well be the perfect balance.

It may seem like a lot of responsibility is being placed on Ndidi’s shoulders but he walked into a Leicester team playing Champions League football as a 20-year-old and the transition was seamless.

Manchester United have struggled to get the best out of Paul Pogba because he doesn’t have the right players around him. Yes, Klopp is more pragmatic than José Mourinho and there’s no suggestion that he’s going to inhibit Keïta, but, as previously mentioned, Ndidi’s arrival would be a security blanket for the Reds.

They could let the RB Leipzig man run wild without skewing the balance and the dynamic.

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