Liverpool may have been rampant in the Premier League this season, but it hasn’t been plain sailing for every member of Jurgen Klopp’s squad.
One man that really has struggled so far is Naby Keita, who has certainly felt the pressure of his £53m price tag following a summer move from RB Leipzig.
The Guinea international did make a promising start to life at Anfield, but a muscular injury in October saw his momentum halted, with Keita failing to impose himself on Klopp’s side ever since.
However, as proven during his time in the Bundesliga, the 23-year-old is an immensely talented player who can split a defence with a pass, charge through midfield with the ball and is just as happy doing the dirty work out of possession.
With that in mind, how can Klopp turn around the form of this midfield dynamo? As the season draws on, Liverpool will have to call upon every member of their squad to maintain their title challenge and go as far as they can in the Champions League.
Here are three ways Klopp can get the best out of Keita:
1. Release the shackles
Arguably the main reason Keita has struggled to adapt at Liverpool so far is the fact that their system and approach is radically different to that of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s during their days together at Leipzig.
Under Hasenhuttl, Keita was used centrally as a marauding midfielder, with the freedom to burst forward in possession and spearhead Leipzig’s counter-attacks.
Out of possession, Hasenhuttl also allowed Keita to use his athleticism and tackling ability to go hunting for the ball high up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that he was backed behind by a centrally solid 4-2-2-2 system.
Under Klopp so far, Keita has often been deployed on the left of a midfield three but pushed further out to the wing to sit in front of Andrew Robertson at full-back.
This may be a ploy to afford Keita time to adjust to Liverpool’s style of play in an area where the play is much less congested but it is undoubtedly shackling his abilities – Keita has only completed 49.42 passes and created 0.55 chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, lower than any Liverpool midfielder.
This, therefore, makes for a simple solution: move Keita into his favoured No.8 role and release the shackles.
During his time at Leipzig, Keita was often used in a double-pivot at the base of a narrow midfield. His role, however, was often very different to that of whoever Hasenhuttl partnered Keita with in midfield – often Kevin Kampl – as the Guinea international was allowed to burst forward and attack with the ball and get heavily involved with the press.
To ensure Leipzig’s passing options were kept open and that the team wasn’t caught short at the back, Keita’s midfield partner would often drop between the centre-backs to pick up possession and progress the ball forward.
Although the chances of Klopp deviating his system and sacrificing his famed front three are incredibly slim, the German already has the perfect players at his disposal to install a double pivot: Fabinho has been much improved in recent weeks and would be the perfect man to drop between the centre-backs, while Keita can bomb forward with the ball safe in the knowledge that the Brazilian has his back covered.
Ahead of the double-pivot, Klopp could look to Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been extremely decisive when trusted in that role this season, scoring six goals and contributing three assists so far.
Adam Lallana, who has created 1.32 chances and completed 1.32 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, is another option in the attacking midfield role when fit.
The England international is still one of Liverpool’s most talented ball players and has match-defining capabilities on the ball, if only he can steer clear of injuries.
3. Start dishing out the hugs
Back in November, Trent Alexander-Arnold hailed Klopp’s man-management techniques, going as far to say the German’s methods are “perfect”.
“He obviously wants the best from everyone in his team and I like his honesty,” Alexander-Arnold told the official Liverpool FC magazine. “He’s always straight with you and that’s good because you know what he’s saying is the truth, so you really listen to it and apply it to yourself.
“He knows when to be harsh with someone and when to put his arm around someone and help them along in tough times. I’ve experienced that a few times and it’s helped me to keep on performing.”
Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk, who has been instrumental in Liverpool’s title challenge this season, has recently given Klopp’s personal approach a glowing reference.
“There is something about Klopp that makes him stand out. It’s not just his energy, I think it’s his man- management,” the Dutchman said.
“Klopp makes you feel great. He is genuinely pleased to see you in the morning and that has a big effect on the players who come in.
“Just look at the hugs he gives us all at the end of games. It is only a bit of affection, something very small, but it makes you feel great.”
Van Dijk: ”Klopp's man-management is excellent. He puts you in your place when you've made mistakes
but is genuinely pleased to see you in the morning. The hugs at the end of games, these are very small things, but it makes you feel GREAT & has a BIG effect on us."#LFC #Liverpool pic.twitter.com/WlZEuOKsH1
— Liverpoolzy (@Liverpool_zy) January 20, 2019
This is a recurring theme when speaking to most players that work under Klopp and will be a key factor in ensuring Keita becomes a success at Anfield.
Most players low on confidence simply require an arm around their shoulder and a show of confidence from their manager to blossom.
Back in November, Klopp insisted Keita remains a “massive part of Liverpool’s future” and hailed him as an “outstanding player”, showing that the nurturing process has already begun.