Andy Robertson hailed “fantastic” Naby Keita’s performance in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth, and believes the under-fire midfielder just needs time to settle in with the side.
Much was expected of Keita after agreeing to join Liverpool last season and officially completing his move from RB Leipzig over the summer.
However, the midfielder has struggled with injuries and effectiveness in his debut season on the Merseyside, and has become a target for criticism.
Those critiques grew especially loud in the past week, as Keita started both of Liverpool’s 1-1 draws, with Leicester and West Ham respectively, as Man City passed the Reds in the table after a 2-0 win over Everton on Wednesday.
But Keita was part of a Liverpool midfield that had a strong day on Saturday, delivering the result needed to restore the club to the top of the Premier League, at least until Man City’s match against Chelsea on Sunday.
And Robertson, who assisted on Georginio Wijnaldum’s goal, praised the midfield for their performance and singled out Keita as having had his best game in a Liverpool shirt.
“They were different class,” Robertson told the club’s official website. “On my side, I thought that Naby was excellent.
“He has taken a wee bit of time to settle in but today was probably his best performance in a Liverpool shirt. I’m sure he can take a lot of confidence from that, which he will.
“Gini has been magnificent this season and he pops up with a goal and, to be fair to him, it’s a great finish. Fabinho just goes about his business and won the ball back for us so many times.
“So, the midfield won their battles and that set us off and everyone followed suit. I don’t think we lost many battles all over the field.”
Robertson also addressed the struggles of Keita, pointing out that the midfielder is not the first at the club to not make an immediate impact.
This season, Fabinho took time to become a key part of Klopp’s side, while last term Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Robertson himself only emerged as big contributors at around the halfway point of the campaign.
With Keita celebrating his 24th birthday on Sunday, Robertson backs his team-mate to mature into a similar star at Anfield.
“He’s young and he’s had to take time. But if you look at all of us, Fabinho had to take time, me, Chambo,” Robertson added.
“There’s a kind of pattern emerging that you need to settle in and you need to learn the way to play and things like that.
“I think everyone forgets how young Naby is – 24 tomorrow, he’s only a young boy. He’s a fantastic player and the more he shows it the more people will start talking about him.
“I thought today he was a different class. I’m sure his confidence will be sky high after today.”
Liverpool analysis – Naby Keita finally announces Anfield arrival as trusted lieutenants shine once again
first there was the protracted pursuit and eventual purchase of the midfielder from RB Leipzig, with a further 12 months before the Reds could claim the player as their own.
And then came the long, at times painful adaptation process during which the Guinean struggled for both form and confidence following his £52.75million transfer.
“Is the Premier League ready for Naby Keita?” was a question that went viral last summer. Yet it was always a big ask to take a young player – only 24 on Sunday – from a different league and country, plonk him in a Jurgen Klopp midfield and ask him to crack on.
See how Liverpool’s players rated against Bournemouth HERE
As Fabinho discovered, it doesn’t happen overnight.
But with Keita now getting his minutes – this a fourth successive start – he is also beginning to grasp his opportunities, helped by a recent switch back to 4-3-3.
Better in the second half at West Ham, against Bournemouth he had a hand in all three goals on his best game for the club.
The first saw him retrieve a clearance to feed James Milner to cross for Sadio Mane to head home. Keita then set in motion the move for Gini Wijnaldum‘s second by winning the ball from ex-Red Jordon Ibe.
The highlight, though, was the superbly weighted pass with the outside of his right foot that released Roberto Firmino to create the third.
It was exactly the contribution for which Klopp was willing to bid his time and spend the big bucks.
Keita was another of the players given a huge hug by the Reds boss on the final whistle.
Maybe, just maybe, Keita is now finally ready for the Premier League.
Is there no end to Gini Wijnaldum’s talents?
As the Liverpool midfielder went through his warm-up exercises before kick-off, a message of encouragement flashed up from his Twitter account.
Technical wizardry – or, more likely, someone else managing his tweets – was the reason, rather the Dutchman sneaking his mobile phone out on to the Anfield pitch.
But far more impressive was his subsequent dominant performance against Bournemouth that earned him a richly-deserved standing ovation on his late substitution.
That it later transpired Wijnaldum had crawled off his sickbed further underlined the quality of his display.
And his energy, strength and ability to sniff out danger all made a key difference to a Reds midfield that appeared more cohesive and effective than for some time.
Wijnaldum it was who produced the sumptuous lob for Liverpool’s second, shortly after failing to make the most of a similar situation, the Dutchman profiting from clearly being tasked to make more runs from deep.
As demonstrated at West Ham on Monday, Wijnaldum is a player whose attributes are only truly appreciated when he isn’t there.
Keeping their most consistent – and, this season at least, best – midfielder fit and healthy will be key for Liverpool during the run-in.
There would be no celebratory knee slide this time. But Sadio Mane’s well-taken header to put Liverpool ahead and ease any Anfield nerves represented a personal landmark.
Never before had the Senegalese scored in four successive Premier League games.
And this latest strike – his 13th of the season, admittedly with a hint of offside – further underlined how Mane has become the Reds’ most influential forward since the turn of the year.
With Mohamed Salah and in particular Roberto Firmino at times subdued in recent weeks, Mane has assumed responsibility, just as he did earlier in the season when the duo were suffering from post-World Cup blues.
Jurgen Klopp will have been similarly encouraged at the other end of the field, where the defence – augmented by the return from the bench late on of Trent Alexander-Arnold – earned only a second clean sheet in seven Premier League games.
HOW LIVERPOOL’S PLAYERS RATED DURING THEIR WIN OVER BOURNEMOUTH
And avoiding defeat means the Reds have now gone 34 games without losing a home league game, matching their second-best such tally.
Another landmark in a remarkable Liverpool campaign that continues to offer such tantalising promise.