The blessing for Naby Keita, after a new year in which the average cost of a world-class footballer has jumped yet again, is that his price no longer looks so exorbitant. The downside for a footballer deemed worth €75 million (Dh331m) after just one season in a leading European league, is that even more is now expected of him at Liverpool, the club who have just lost a fans' favourite and are impatient for the next one to announce himself.
Keita is the next link in an economic chain that measures the inflation of transfer fees in the last six months, the tail of a story that began with Barcelona receiving a world-record €222m for Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain, then paying two thirds of that to Liverpool for Philippe Coutinho this week, with Liverpool staking the Coutinho income on Virgil Van Dijk, a defender to reinforce the part of the squad most obviously in need of an expert, and on a midfielder whose sphere of influence will be Keita's to define.
Liverpool are understood to be pushing for the unusual deal they made with RB Leipzig last August for Keita to move 12 months later to be brought forward. They committed to pay more than Keita’s buyout clause and are open to now add a supplement to the €75m agreed to hurry his arrival to this month. Leipzig, who have dropped out of the Uefa Champions League but have second-place finish in the Bundesliga in their realistic sights are resistant to losing Keita for the rest of the campaign, even though their management acknowledge his form has dipped in recent months.
It is easy to attribute that to the limbo of his situation, in action for one club, destined for another. Keita, who turns 23 next month, might also be suffering Second-Season Syndrome. He has, like Leipzig, risen fast, and in his debut season in a prestigious league – the German club signed him from Austrian football in 2015 – he was consistently the dynamic midfield energiser of his team’s whirligig arrival as a power in the Bundesliga. From his midfield position in 2016/17 the Guinean struck eight league goals; his follow-up has been patchier. A red card early in the season meant a three-match suspension and he has just two goals in this Bundesliga term so far.
“Things like the Liverpool transfer can prey on a player’s mind,” acknowledged Leipzig’s director of sport Ralf Rangnick. “But he has got his focus back, and we need him from now on to be challenging for European places.”
Liverpool meanwhile need to start planning a role for Keita, who is commanding as a deep midfielder, with the ability on the ball to threaten the opposition goal and a powerful shot. He has most box-to-box assets. He is not, though, a Coutinho, and what he gives to a Liverpool team with potency up front but brittle habits is bound to evaluated on a gauge partly set by Coutinho.
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The last time Liverpool had a large winter windfall, they spent some of it very wisely. Should either Keita or Van Dijk turn out to be as shrewd a buy as Luis Suarez was in January 2011, the club will have done excellent business.
Suarez was signed from Ajax for less than half the £50m Liverpool earned from the sale of Fernando Torres the same month to Chelsea. He went on to become the Premier League’s Footballer of the Year and Liverpool’s top scorer for every one of his three full seasons there.
Less effective was Andy Carroll, who cost £35m at the same time.
The way Liverpool scattered the money they recouped when in 2014 Suarez - just like Coutinho - pressed for a move to Barcelona, was less tidy.
Of the £75m Barcelona paid for Suarez, some £30m went on centre-forwards who made little impression - Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Divock Origi; meanwhile, the £20m Lazar Markovic has spent most of his Liverpool career out on loan.
Emre Can and Adam Lallana were successful buys in the summer of Suarez’s departure, while Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno remain part of the first-team squad. Keita and Van Dijk will hope - and be expected - to leave a more lasting mark than any of those.