How Naby Keita went from world-beater to flop following £54m transfer to Liverpool

Stefan Bienkowski
How Naby Keita went from world-beater to flop following £54m transfer to Liverpool

While the arrival of John W. Henry and his Fenway Sports Group has heralded unprecedented success at Liverpool since 2010, there are some notable exceptions to the perceived accuracy and efficiency of the club’s dealings in the transfer market. 

Without doubt, the most damning exception to the rule at Anfield over the last four or five seasons has been the arrival of Naby Keita. 

Signed from RB Leipzig for a reported fee of £54 million, the Guinea midfielder was supposed to be Klopp’s midfield commander and help take the club to new heights. 

While the club did eventually reach new heights under Klopp, they had to do so in spite of Keita rather than thanks to his talents. 

How did Keita’s move work out for Liverpool?

Keita made his name in the Bundesliga by being an exceptional box-to-box midfielder for a RB Leipzig team that were trying to punch their way to the top of the German top flight. 

In the 2016/17 season Keita scored eight goals and bagged a further eight assists and then the following season after that he added to his tally by picking up nine goals and seven assists. The young midfielder, it seemed, was capable of dominating in both boxes and putting on regular, match-winning performances. 

However, when he arrived at Liverpool it became abundantly clear from the first moment that something wasn’t right. After being given the freedom of the pitch by Julian Nagelsmann, Klopp then constrained Keita into a specific playmaker, that either played as a No.10 or a deep lying, defensive midfielder instead. 

As a result, Keita looked like a shadow of his former self and managed just three goals and a solitary assist in 33 games during his first season at Liverpool. In the following campaign he improved slightly on that return with four goals and three assists, but by then niggling injuries and a lesser prevalence in Klopp’s plans meant Keita started just nine of Liverpool’s 38 league games that season. 

Unfortunately for the midfielder, injury and a COVID infection have limited his game time this season as well. And with no clear sign that Keita is adapting to the role his club want for him, it seems likely that he may be sold on this summer to make room for new signings. 

How Naby Keita went from world-beater to flop following £54m transfer to Liverpool

How Naby Keita went from world-beater to flop following £54m transfer to Liverpool

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How did Keita’s move work out for RB Leipzig?

While losing Keita was undoubtedly a blow for RB Leipzig, his transfer has in many ways forced the team to transform into the more impressive side that it is now. 

For example, with the money RB Leipzig made from Keita’s transfer to Liverpool, the German side have brought in a number of younger players that have gone on to thrive under Nagelsmann’s coaching. 

These include Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku, Angelino, Alexander Sorloth and most recently attacking midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai. While the club signed no direct replacement for Keita, his fee has been used to improve the overall quality of the squad. 

Another reason why a replacement for Keita was never signed is because his departure allowed the club to develop another player into his successor in midfield: Marcel Sabizter. 

Having been part of the club since they were in the second tier of German football, Sabitzer has played in just about every position in over 200 games for the club. But since Keita departure the Austrian has become a box-to-box titan, like the Guinea international once was for the club. 

Prior to Keita’s departure, Sabitzer was primarily a wide player but since the 2018 the Austrian has spent more and more time playing as a central midfielder, to the point that the 27-year-old talent has played all but one of his 33 appearances for the club in the middle of the pitch.