Tuesday 23 July 2019

Keita determined to justify the hype as he takes on Gerrard's No 8 mantle

Liverpool's Naby Keita. Photo: PA
Liverpool's Naby Keita. Photo: PA

Chris Bascombe

Thirty minutes in the company of Naby Keita is enough to leave you in a spin when contemplating what kind of footballer Liverpool have finally landed.

His childhood idols were Barcelona's Andres Iniesta and Deco. On the streets of his village in Conakry, Guinea, he imitated Steven Gerrard.

He lists winning possession among his best assets, and attributes four red cards in the German Bundesliga last season to natural aggression.

In his final year at RB Leipzig - Liverpool having completed a £55m transfer 12 months ago - he was compared to N'Golo Kante before it was acknowledged his dribbling and guile made him more of a box-to-box midfielder or even Philippe Coutinho. Except quicker.

It may be the prolonged wait between his signing and arrival or a consequence of the social media hysteria around modern transfers, but few Liverpool players have been eulogised so much before playing a competitive match. Every description implies completeness.

"I am aggressive in a positive sense," Keita said when asked to define his game. "My first mindset is to defend well.

"As a midfielder, when you have sealed things up at the back, my job is to provide the ammunition for the forwards. Also, if I get a chance, I want to take it and score. But I am a team player. I think about the team always."

Liverpool's willingness to wait a year for Keita - despite what was at the time a club-record deal - swelled anticipation.

So did giving him the No 8, vacant since Gerrard left in 2015, with a ceremonial passing of the shirt from the club legend.

"I used to play in the streets wearing a Liverpool shirt. My dad had a love of Liverpool. I wanted to be like him, always the boss of the team," recalled Keita.

"Eight is a number I always liked. It's also the number my dad wore when he played, so it's special to me. I am aware that it's a big number here at Liverpool, and I am very excited to wear it."

Another No 8 was his biggest hero. "My overall favourite player would be Iniesta," he said.

"For his final ball obviously, his skill and his ability. He is not known for his aggression - that is something I have added to my game. As a midfielder, you need to have that."

Liverpool can thank a former manager for Keita's progress. Gerard Houllier, then Red Bull Salzburg's head of global football, spotted Keita playing for FC Istres in France's second division in 2014. Red Bull secured the switch to sister club RB Leipzig in 2016.

Everton, meanwhile, have stepped up their summer transfer activity by bidding a club-record £50m for Richarlison and making formal contact with Barcelona with a view to bringing defenders Lucas Digne and Yerry Mina to Goodison Park.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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