By Andy Hunter The Guardian
Ewood Park on Thursday night and it is not only updates on Alisson’s world-record move to Anfield that is enthralling thousands of Liverpool fans in the Darwen End stand. The second-half performance of Naby Keita against Blackburn Rovers suggests that for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp here is another high-profile transfer worth the wait.
Yes, it was a pre-season friendly against Championship opposition and judgment should be reserved. But early impressions count. Within minutes of his introduction the captain of Guinea freed Daniel Sturridge behind the Blackburn defence with a slide-rule, diagonal pass. His composure on the ball, distribution and movement impressed throughout. One year after agreeing a complex deal with RB Leipzig for the midfielder, one that eventually rose to £52.75mn, Liverpool are discovering why the 23-year-old’s father called his son Deco when they played football on the streets of Conakry, the capital of Guinea. In Keita’s eyes he was a Steven Gerrard or Andres Iniesta. Klopp will be beside himself if he has landed a combination of the two.
“Since I signed for Liverpool my dad has spoken to me a lot about how much he loved them,” says Keita. “As a kid we used to play in the streets wearing a Liverpool shirt. He had that love of Liverpool back then when I was 11 or 12 years old. Because I’m a midfielder and Steven Gerrard was always the boss of the team I couldn’t be anyone else but Steven Gerrard when I played.
“My overall favourite player would be Iniesta. It is his final ball, obviously, his skill and his ability. I know he is not known for his aggression but that is something I have added to my game, even if it is not one of his traits. I think as a midfielder you need to have that aggression as part of your game. But I always admired Deco too. It was funny because my dad loved Deco as a player. He started calling me Deco as a nickname around the house.”
Sekou Keita’s influence on his son’s career continues to this day. Gerrard was at Melwood last month to hand over his old No. 8 shirt to Keita after Liverpool finally broke the deadlock with Leipzig by paying a premium on top of his £48mn release clause – a club-record fee at the time.
“Eight was always the number I liked going back to my childhood,” says the Guinea international. “It’s also the number my dad wore when he played football so it’s special to me. He wasn’t fortunate enough to play professionally but he did play at a decent level for an amateur team in Conakry. I am aware that it’s a big number here at Liverpool and I am very excited to wear it. I know it was Steven’s number but I am not going to put any extra pressure on myself. What is more important is contributing for this team than the number on your back. “I didn’t know that Steven would be at Melwood so it was a big shock and exciting to be presented with the shirt by him. Steven said: ‘Everyone will be here for you and help you to develop.’ I am here to learn and grow as a player.”
Barcelona and Bayern Munich rivalled Liverpool for Keita’s signature last summer but, even before witnessing the team’s exhilarating run to the Champions League final, he was convinced Anfield should be his next step. “It’s true there were other teams involved like the ones you mention but a big part of my decision was the role of the coach,” he says.
“We had good conversations. The words he spoke to me about this project really convinced me. I could see how the club was developing and I spoke at length with Sadio (Mane). Sadio is like a brother to me. We had nine months together at Salzburg and built up a good rapport. We have been great friends since that time. He told me what a great club this was and how the team was progressing and had great potential.”
Adapting to the physicality of English football should not be an issue for Keita who, despite his admiration for players such as Iniesta and Deco, readily admits to revelling in the aggressive side of the game. Four red cards last season suggest revelling in it a bit too much.
“I think I might have been a bit unfortunate with a couple of those reds,” he says, with a laugh. “The main thing is that they were not for losing my discipline or anything like that. It was just a tackle that was judged to be a little bit stronger than it was.
“I am someone who has a real winning mentality. I have a huge desire to win. That is why I am aggressive in a positive sense on the field. My first mindset 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.
“I am a team player. My long-term aim has always been to play football at the highest level I possibly could for a big club. 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.”
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