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Overlooked Liverpool midfielder has qualities his team-mates lack

Liverpool supporters have spent much of the campaign yearning for a number of injured players to become available to help the team’s fortunes of the pitch, with Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Diogo Jota, Joel Matip and Fabinho eagerly awaited.

As a result, many have overlooked the potential impact of Naby Keita as the Guinean midfielder returns to full fitness ahead of this weekend’s Merseyside derby.

The 26 year-old rejoined full training recently after being absent since just before Christmas. He could make an unlikely appearance against Everton this weekend, which will help the Reds because simply put, he’s really good.

Keita has been the topic of much debate since arriving on Merseyside. While he doesn’t quite pass the eye test for every supporter just yet, any fan who delves into the numbers will recognise his value.

He’s amassed 2,600 Premier League minutes since transferring from RB Leipzig in 2018, which equates to about 29 full 90-minute performances.

Most of his midfield teammates at Anfield have played a lot more over the same period but regardless, the big samples involved should allow for a fairly accurate comparison to be made.

So what does Keita do differently compared to Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho and James Milner?

It sounds relatively simple, but what differentiates him the most from those who he’s deployed alongside is his usage of the ball.

Dynamic and unconventional are two apt descriptive words for Keita. He’s particularly inclined to carry possession forward towards the final third, which is in stark contrast to his teammates, shown below.

Alongside his tendency to drive forward with the ball, he’s also more skilled than most on the dribble, posting more than double the number of completed dribbles per 90 than every other Liverpool midfielder except Wijnaldum.

Keita clearly has very offensive qualities and his impact on proceedings represents that, with Pep Ljinders once stating that the Guinean international ‘adds unpredictability to our build-up’.

Per Statsbomb’s shot-creating actions metric – which covers the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls – Keita ranks behind only Milner since joining Liverpool.

At this point, it is worth noting that Milner has taken a fair amount of set-pieces for the Reds since 2018 and has likely benefited from them, whereas Keita hasn’t been involved with any.

What is notable in addition to Keita’s attacking traits is his defensive activity. Only Fabinho averages more tackles + interceptions per 90 over the period in question, and Keïta’s 25.3 pressures per 90 dwarfs second-best Milner on 19.3 pressures per 90.

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The injuries are his biggest problem, but he’s still just 26 years-old and Liverpool established a newly-created role recently for Dr Andreas Schlumberger, who is now the club’s head of recovery and performance.

Moving forward, perhaps the German expert will have an influence on Keita’s ability to get on the pitch more often so that he can showcase his unique qualities?

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