Mohamed Salah. Sadio Mane. Goals. Three points.
In many ways, the new Liverpool – the one expected to push Manchester City for the Premier League title – looks exactly like the old Liverpool. It did Sunday as curtains opened on a new EPL season at Anfield and West Ham felt the Red wrath. Liverpool stormed to a 4-0 victory. Familiar faces dotted the scoresheet.
Liverpool spent over $200 million this summer on four players. Even without any of them, it almost certainly would have passed its first test of 2018-19. But the performance of one – more than the goals, or the clean sheet – reinforced much of the optimism that has been bubbling on Merseyside.
Naby Keita’s influence
Keita, a 23-year-old Guinean, has been Anfield-bound for almost 12 months now. Liverpool agreed to a delayed deal with RB Leipzig last summer to bring the box-to-box midfielder to England a year later. And he’s going to be worth the wait.
Keita brings N’Golo Kante- or Idrissa Gueye-esque ground coverage to a midfield that already had a decent amount of it, but also adds elite ball progression. Liverpool, at times under Jurgen Klopp, has had to choose between the two skill sets. Keita packs both into his slender 5-foot-8 frame.
He doesn’t quite have the passing ability of Philippe Coutinho, but he’ll play as the most advanced of Liverpool’s three midfielders. With the ball, he’ll be the link that connects buildup play to assaults on opposing goals.
He created Liverpool’s opening goal with a trademark dart into space, and a finely weighted and angled assist-before-the-assist:
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) August 12, 2018
There are extended Leipzig highlight reels of Keita weaving his way through several opposing defenders at speed. He very nearly replicated them on his Premier League debut:
On the defensive side of the ball, Keita will be at the fore of Liverpool’s fearsome press. He’s an excellent front-foot tackler and passing-lane-plugger. Liverpool didn’t have to ravage West Ham high up the pitch very often. Keita will help when it faces opponents more capable in possession.
His activity will also give Liverpool numerical advantages in both advanced areas and deeper ones. On one play early in Sunday’s second half, he raced back to double up on Michail Antonio and recoup the ball:
Keita didn’t mark his debut with a goal or an assist. Salah, Mane (2) and Daniel Sturridge were the scorers. But the single most important Premier League summer signing showed glimpses of why he’s garnered that moniker.
Liverpool the most impressive of the Big Six so far
It is foolish to turn 90 minutes into sweeping takeaways. Foolish to assume an opening-day win predicts a title challenge. But of the four contenders who have played (and won) so far, Liverpool’s performance was the most impressive.
On Friday, Manchester United was underwhelming in a 2-1 win over Leicester City. Tottenham beat Newcastle by the same scoreline days later, albeit with far more promise and verve. Chelsea went to Huddersfield and won 3-0, but was somewhat shaky for 45 minutes against the league’s second-most overmatched team.
With Liverpool, there were no reservations. There were only questionable Klopp celebrations:
I don’t feel qualified to give this Jurgen Klopp celebration GIF a caption. Somebody help… pic.twitter.com/dSq8KFShyt
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) August 12, 2018
There will also be tougher tests. New-look West Ham wasn’t built to neutralize a supercharged attack. Its barren midfield was overwhelmed. Others will provide the Reds with more resistance. Others won’t fall asleep as crosses float into the box …
But Liverpool just might be better equipped to break resistance than ever before under Klopp. Sunday was an outstanding start.
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