FOOTBALL is a game fuelled by emotion.
Whether it be the rip-roaring joy of a last-minute winner, or the heart palpitations caused by a late goalmouth scramble, we live every moment.
It’s the reason why we love the game; creating moments of pure ecstasy and desperation, it allows us to feel alive – a stadium of strangers unified by the love of their team.
It does, however, make patience hard.
The ability to sit in wait as your team takes 15 or 20 minutes to gel, abstaining from vocalising your frustration. Now that’s hard to come by.
Naby Keita wasn’t afforded the pleasure, maligned by those who had spent the summer salivating over YouTube compilations having struggled to deliver performances akin to those that became a custom in the Bundesliga.
The opening game of the season aside, the 24-year-old’s relatively mundane start to his Liverpool career was magnified by critics quick to quash his qualities. Knocks were taking their toll, inhibiting him from establishing any momentum while visible underachievement on the pitch showed he still needed time to acclimatise to the freneticism of the Premier League.
Indeed, where many, including the manager, expected Keita to hit the ground running, it has instead been a gradual process similar to Andy Robertson, Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s respective journeys.
Patience is a virtue. There’s a reason they say it.
There had been glimpses of Keita’s quality but nothing more than flickers of what could be. However, recent weeks have seen the former Leipzig man begin to turn the wheel in midfield, with notable performances against Bournemouth and Bayern Munich suggestive of the influence he could grow to have at Anfield.
While Fabinho has excelled and Wijnaldum has continued to show a new-found exuberance in the final third, Keita has been turning what could be into what is.
In the months prior, Keita has appeared a player doubting his own abilities, embroiled by the frustration of not being able to deliver the Hollywood pass. Now, through the continued support and selection of his manager, he appears to be growing in confidence, holding much more influence over matches at a pivotal time in Liverpool’s season.
Against Bournemouth, in particular, there was a noticeable upturn in his off-the-ball work, making more tackles (seven) and ball recoveries (12) than any other player in a relentless midfield performance. At the other end, he was progressive in initiating offensive moves, epitomised by a brilliant through ball for Roberto Firmino in the buildup to the third.
Crucially, Keita followed it up with another top draw performance against Bayern Munich. Keita was in the thick of the action, given the licence to maraud forward – a task he fulfilled well, completing four dribbles, three shots and one key pass.
The highlight of that night, however, came via an exquisite first-half dribble as Keita left two Bayern midfielders in his wake before playing an incisive ball into the front three. There was even an attempted bicycle kick in there somewhere.
Not confident? Please.
Having been hampered by illness since, ruling him out against Manchester United and reducing him to a substitute appearance against Watford, the Guinean is now actively looking to take on more responsibility, demanding possession and feeding off the runners ahead of him.
There appears to be less self doubt, less second guessing.
What made Keita such a force – both offensively and defensively – in Germany was that there was never a moment he didn’t believe he could win, nor a moment he thought he couldn’t beat his man.
Now approaching a pivotal phase of the season, the upcoming months present a prime opportunity for him to assert himself in a similar fashion.
There can be no room for thought, no attention paid to criticism.
Keita must block out the white noise and focus on each game, harnessing the confidence and support of his teammates that has, crucially, never wavered.
Liverpool are a point ahead and in control of their own destiny.
Ten more cup finals to play. Ten more opportunities to seize.
A notable improvement in performance level has set the wheels in motion for Keita, reassuring any who doubted if Liverpool really did have a player on their hands.
Now is the time for him to show it.
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“We need to try and take the emotion out of it.
“This is just another game against another mid-table side.” 👀
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) March 1, 2019