Liverpool

Why it's high time Klopp showed faith in Keïta

 • by Ryan Baldi
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In his post-match press conference, Jürgen Klopp rejected the suggestion he’d been too cautious in Liverpool‘s 0-0 draw with Everton at Goodison Park.

“You think it’s a game, PlayStation; you bring [on] an extra attacker and football will change,” he retorted when questioned about whether his side should have taken more risks in pursuit of the three points that would have kept them top of the Premier League. “It’s not like that.”

Klopp had selected a midfield three of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to start the match; a conservative trio but an understandable move given the occasion and stakes. But it was his decision to leave Naby Keïta on the bench and instead bring on James Milner in the 63rd minute that has proven most controversial.

While Milner, although out of form for several months, is a reliable enough performer, he does not possess Keïta’s ability to inject impetus, to break the opposition’s lines with short, sharp dribbles or a quick exchange of passes.

Milner was the safe option.

All points are precious at this stage of such a tight title race, and a draw away from home in a local derby should never be considered disastrous; this was an acceptable navigation of a potentially tricky fixture for Liverpool, a point gained. Only time will tell whether Klopp’s decision to err on the side of caution with his substitutions will be vindicated.

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But Liverpool have now drawn four of their last six Premier League games. They settled for a point a week before the derby, too, when the travelled to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United; another meeting of bitter rivals in which a draw is ordinarily seen as a success for the away side, but with United severely depleted by injury the game felt as though it was there for Liverpool to command.

Of course, the fixture between the draws with United and Everton saw Liverpool back to their imperious attacking best, thrashing Watford 5-0 at Anfield in midweek, but that was only the second league game in 2019 the Reds have won by a margin of more than a single goal.

Before their 2-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad on January 3, Liverpool had won 17 of their 20 league games, drawing the other three; they have won only four of their eight matches since, a drop in win percentage from 85 per cent to 50 per cent.

Liverpool face Burnley on Saturday, by which point, with City hosting Watford on Saturday evening, they could be four points off the top. Keïta was outstanding last time the two sides met, a 3-1 win for the Reds at Turf Moor in December.

The 23-year-old former RB Leipzig man produced arguably his best and most complete performance as a Liverpool player that day, unfortunate not to score his first goal for the club with any of his four shots on target. He showed reliability on the ball, completing 93.2 per cent of his passes, and was always a willing recipient of possession, moving Liverpool forward at every opportunity.

The visit of the Clarets on Sunday provides the ideal time for Keïta to make a case for an augmented role during the run-in.

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No other Liverpool midfielder can drive like Keita, dribble like Keïta and actively hunt the ball like Keïta. He’s been far from perfect since his long-awaited £52million arrival at Anfield last summer and there is surely better to come from the Guinean as he continues to settle and integrate into his new surroundings. But he has shown more than enough in recent weeks to suggest that he is tracing an upward trajectory and is deserving of greater trust.

Mohamed Salah (2.3) is the only Liverpool player with a higher average for successful dribbles per 90 minutes than Keïta (1.7) this season. And, despite the fact he is yet to score, Keïta generates more shots per 90 (2.1) than every Liverpool midfielder except Xherdan Shaqiri (2.2).

Keïta makes things happen, which at times means he loses the ball more than others, but the potential rewards are high and Liverpool’s defensive foundation is strong enough to absorb the inherent risk.

It’s natural to feel protective of a narrow lead at the top of the table – especially given the weight of history hanging over Liverpool’s title bid. But they are now tasked with chasing City down, a new dynamic in which there is no advantage to protect, only a gap to extinguish and an opponent to overtake; that will necessitate taking a certain amount of risk.

Liverpool need to be proactive, and for that, they must rely more on their most proactive midfielder.

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