Remember Naby Keita’s first few games after his mega exciting transfer from Rb Leipzig?
He wowed on debut against West Ham in an easy win and already had a full highlight reel following his sparkling performance against Crystal Palace not long afterwards.
Keita was full of trickery, adventure and dribbling early on. It didn’t last long, of course, with injuries and increasingly poor form ruining his promising start. The excitement soon turned into frustration and basically stayed that way throughout his entire five year tenure. At Werder Bremen now, he’s suffering with injuries and has already fallen out with club staff. What a fall from grace.
Jurgen Klopp even admitted that Keita’s issues began when he and Pep Lijnders tried to coach him tactically, instead of asking him to just play his natural game.
“For some reasons it was in the beginning it was very good,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website back in 2020, two years after Keita arrived.
“I didn’t speak a lot to him about football, I just wanted to let him do his natural stuff so that was really good.
“Then I started coaching him and he got worse! That’s maybe not the main reason but then he was a bit unlucky with injuries, that was the main reason.
“Naby had to learn the language, to feel really settled in the squad and all these kind of things.”
Is there a comparison to be made with Dom Szoboszlai and the Hungarian’s increasingly indifferent performances following his jaw-dropping start?
Szoboszlai, like Keita, arrived aged 22 from Rb Leipzig with the task of adding creativity and invention to the midfield.
He even took Keita’s no.8 and at first looked like an enormous upgrade. In fact, he almost certainly will be whatever happens next, but there’s undeniably been a drop off.
Early on, Szoboszlai would dribble with the ball through midfield and make driving runs akin to a young Steven Gerrard – which led to huge comparisons which were potentially not helpful. He demonstrated his incredible shooting power with wonder-goals against Wolves and Leicester City, but it was his overall efforts that was leaving Reds purring.
He won the ball back, pressed relentlessly, making clever passes, short and long; while covering every blade of grass. Szoboszlai’s first few months actually made the fact we missed out on Jude Bellingham feel irrelevant, but while the Real Madrid star has gone from strength to strength, Szoboszlai has fallen off a cliff.
The issue seems like it might be tactical. He often has to fill in the space on the right wing to cover for Trent Alexander Arnold, who wants to play in the centre-circle. He’s also overlapping Mo Salah regularly, with the Egyptian using Szoboszlai as a decoy and cutting in and trying to make something happen in the box instead.
It feels as if Szoboszlai’s natural creative instincts are being held back so that other players can take more on-the-ball responsibility. The problem is though that over the past few weeks it seems our chances of scoring non set-piece goals rely on Alexander-Arnold pulling out moments of genius. This is wasting the attacking talent of Szoboszlai somewhat.
Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are having the seasons of their lives, but our attack is floundering. Mo Salah is not scintillating and his penalties make his G/A record look better than it probably is this term. Darwin Nunez hasn’t scored in ten and it’s becoming a big problem. Cody Gakpo has no pace in behind and the decline of Luis Diaz from the most exciting player in our team to whatever he is now is horrible to watch. Diogo Jota has been badly missed and hopefully will be back soon.
Szoboszlai though can score goals from outside and inside the box if he’s given more licence to roam with the ball centrally. Klopp should consider using Endo and Trent as a deep-lying pivot, or Alexis Mac Allister when fit, allowing Szoboszlai to essentially play as a no.10. He has the best shot in the club but we can’t benefit from that if he’s making decoy runs on the right-wing.
It does hint at the fact we need a higher quality defensive midfielder to release his shackles. We also need a right-back so that Trent can be consistently used in central positions and not as a Get out of Jail tactic in the final half hour of games.
We need to get this sorted quickly as the Premier League title is definitely there for the taking.