For all their big game performances, Liverpool continue to look just short of the top. They can’t get RB Leipzig’s midfield maverick in soon enough.
When Liverpool blew away runaway leaders Manchester City at Anfield in January, it seemed to vindicate the curious decision to cash in on Philippe Coutinho halfway through the season.
This it did, not just by virtue of the impressive result, but the very nature of the performance. As a representation of all that popular manager Jurgen Klopp stands for, it was definitive: a relentless, hungry side all pulling in one direction – the City goal.
It was a similar story on Tuesday evening as the Reds put FC Porto to the sword, winning 5-0 away in the first leg of their Champions League clash to all but secure their spot in the quarter-finals.
There was logically no place within either paradigm for the mercurial Brazilian, who had made clear his desire to leave, both last summer and again in the winter window.
This underscores one of the core requirements of ‘Klopp-ball’, which is a complete physical and emotional buy-in, not just from players and the fans, but from the man himself, often cartoonishly animated on the touchline. It makes Anfield a fortress, a seething cauldron from which few visiting sides emerge with fond memories.
However, that sense of a new dawn was slightly dampened by subsequent debacles against Swansea and West Bromwich Albion, as well as the draw against Tottenham, and it’s why people shouldn’t get too carried away by the Porto victory.
These struggles magnified the midfield void created by Coutinho’s departure; but it also made clear quite why the Merseyside Reds were so keen to bring forward the arrival of midfielder Naby Keita.
Liverpool have since righted the ship and got back on track, but there is the sense that, for all that the progress made under Klopp is evident in the uniqueness and ferocity of the playing style, the German may be running out of learning curves. There is, after all, no trophy handed out for points against the rest of the top six.
This is why acquiring Keita when they did was so important, and why trying to speed up the timeline was a legitimate desire. RB Leipzig, on their part, were vehement in their reluctance, even with reports indicating Liverpool were willing to pay a further £10 million.
Similarly, there were reports that the player was unsettled by the speculation, and that just ties in to that emotional buy-in, that state of hypnotic seduction that is necessary to play for Klopp. Even aside that, and beyond the fact that Liverpool so obviously need the 23-year-old, it is undeniable that Keita seems such a perfect player for Liverpool as well.
If the ideal of Klopp’s midfield configuration is to eschew specialization and embrace all-rounders in aid of frenetic pressing, then it is almost impossible to find a better exemplar.