Naby Keita interview: Liverpool’s new transfer on passion, personality and following in Sadio Mane’s footsteps

The expectations placed upon Keita’s shoulders may have changed since Liverpool spent big on several other players, but the midfielder says his mentality will not change

Simon Hughes
Saturday 21 July 2018 09:32
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Summer transfer window 2018: Latest Premier League deals and rumours round-up

Naby Keita finds himself in a rare place, a player who was a record buy for a club but will never be in a position to really justify his status in the truest sense.

This is a midfielder who broke new financial ground in agreeing to move to Anfield last August. By the time he makes his competitive Liverpool debut next month, almost a year will have passed because the deal was only sanctioned by Red Bull Leipzig on the condition that the transfer was delayed by a season.

In the intervening twelve months, Liverpool have spent bigger on two other players, with the fees involved for Virgil van Dijk and then Alisson shifting attentions as well as immediate expectations.

There will be a sharp focus on Keita when Liverpool’s Premier League campaign begins at home to West Ham but the focus might not quite be as sharp as it is on Alisson, particularly when the visiting team send their first corner of the afternoon into Liverpool’s penalty box.

Keita also has the advantage of not being the only addition to Liverpool’s engine room this summer, with the eye-catching recruitment of Monaco’s Fabinho involving considerable cost, with the Brazilian now ranking as the second most expensive midfielder in the club’s history.

Jürgen Klopp has hinted that Keita is more likely than Fabinho to feature regularly as the pair begin Liverpool careers, owing to the idea the Premier League has more similarities with the Bundesliga than it does Ligue 1.

Anyone watching Liverpool’s friendly at Blackburn Rovers on Thursday night would probably agree that presently, Keita seems up to speed with his new surroundings. Having been introduced alongside Fabinho, Keita’s dynamism was an outstanding feature of the second half and his presence increased the intensity of the game, allowing Liverpool to win easily.

Earlier in the week, as he spoke to The Independent, it was interesting to hear how he describes himself when asked to. At 23, he has already played in France, Austria and Germany but considering a saga that brought him to Merseyside, one that lasted the whole of summer 2017 – considering too the lengths Liverpool went to get him and the fee they were willing to pay, the Guinean’s profile means he is nevertheless not the sort of name you would associate with a singular quality.

“I am someone who has this real winning mentality,” Keita said, having been escorted one of Anfield’s hospitality suites from Melwood following one of Klopp’s infamous double training sessions. “I have a huge desire to win. That is why I am aggressive in a positive sense on the field. My first mind-set when I am out on the field is to defend well and not concede. As a midfielder, when you have sealed things up at the back, my job is to provide the ammunition for the strikers and forwards, to create opportunities for them. Also, if I get a chance that comes my way, I want to take it and score. But I am a team player. I think about the team and the group always.”

Liverpool signed Keita from RB Leipzig

Keita would explain why Liverpool had been an easy choice for him, despite late interest from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The first influence had been Gérard Houllier, Liverpool’s most successful manager since 1990 – though many forget that fact. Houllier was working as a consultant for Red Bull when he recommended to their Salzburg club they take Keita from Istres four years ago when he was still a teenager. When Leipzig played Marseille in the Europa League last season, their pair embraced “He told me: ’do everything you possibly can – establish yourself.’”

The second influence was Sadio Mané, a teammate for nine months in Salzburg before the Senegalese forward moved on to Southampton. Keita described Mané as being “like a brother,” someone he “keeps in constant contact with.” In those talks, Mané would tell him what it was like at Liverpool. “I could see how the club was developing,” said Keita, who knew all about Klopp by the time he first met him. “A big part of my decision was the role of the coach,” he continued. “We had good conversations. The words he spoke to me about this project really convinced me.”

Finally, but most importantly, there was Keita’s father, Sékou, an amateur footballer whose favourite team in England had been Liverpool. Keita can recall running around the streets of Conakry when he was “11 or 12 years old” wearing a Liverpool away shirt.

Liverpool have spent big this summer

His father’s passion would inspire passion - “I like winning the ball back. It’s something I love,” Keita would say. If this is his strength, it might also explain a weakness. There were four red cards for Leipzig last season, though he dismisses the suggestion that he might have a disciplinary problem, insisting two of the dismissals were because of tackles that were “judged to be a little bit stronger than it was.”

Perhaps it says a lot about his personality that he was daring enough to inherit Steven Gerrard’s old number at Liverpool. Eight had remained vacant for three years until Keita came along but he speaks in the sort of straightforward manner that makes you think that nothing is getting in his way, not least an opponent when a challenge is there to be won.

“My long-term aim has always been to play football at the highest level I possibly could,” he reflected. “When that is in your mind you don't give up, you constantly fight and battle to make that happen. But that isn't to say that now I am at a massive club I am going to relax and to stop fighting and battling. I am still going to be the same.”

The spotlight will be on the midfielder

While the pressure of Anfield might not be on him like it will be on Alisson, Keita carries the hopes of a country. A United Nations development report ranks Guinea as the tenth poorest in the world and in that context Keita’s achievements inspires hope.

“I have not been home on holiday this summer but from what people have told me on the phone, I know it has been mad. The interest is huge. They are buying Liverpool shirts or just red shirts, whatever they can. I think it will encourage me to work even harder.”

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