Liverpool newcomer Naby Keita is already showing why Jurgen Klopp was so determined to sign him from RB Leipzig, impressing in his pre-season outings.
And the Guinean midfielder has shown a particularly astute on- and off-field understanding with Daniel Strurridge, recalling memories of how the injury-plagued striker used to link up with Philippe Coutinho.
Our friends at Football Whispers look at whether Keita is the man to help get Sturridge back to his best at Anfield.
Pre-season football can be a mire of deception and false promises, where players emerge in friendlies looking like world-beaters, only to fall away once the season starts and the pressure of competitive games proves too much.
This is especially true of young players who are asked to fill in while the seniors recover from a summer tournament. Those from the youth squad can thrive in the pre-season environment where their natural fitness gives them the edge, and the low pressure nature of the games allows them to thrive, but first-team football can be a different proposition altogether.
For other players, however, their class is permanent. One such purveyor of quality football regardless of the level of competition is Daniel Sturridge, and the forward has proven this at the highest level. His memorable goal in Liverpool’s Europa League final defeat of 2016 is one example, with a whole host of goals from the club’s title challenging season of 2013/14 providing others.
Liverpool’s pre-season games have so far seen Sturridge back to his best, looking fitter, happier, and more productive. Comfortable.
He has said as much in one of the many interviews players do do during this time of the year, commenting that he feels at home at the club, and has learnt a lot about the team watching from afar.
“I love it here. I love the lads and the banter in the group is unbelievable. I feel at home again,” he told the club’s official website.
“When I went away I learned too. That’s also a good thing. When you’re not involved in the environment you learn a lot about yourself and the team, watching from afar and seeing how the team are playing.”
One noticeable aspect of his pre-season play has been his immediate rapport with new signing Naby Keita. The Guinean may be still settling in at his new club, and learning a new language, but he and Sturridge have been on the same wavelength on the pitch, communicating via football.
It turns out that the pair are buddies in the dressing room, too, lining up alongside each other before games. This explains some of their connection on the pitch, which is sprinkled with the qualities both can bring to a team.
Sturridge has begun to drop deeper from his starting position as a centre forward, and this part of his game may be one of the things he learnt watching the team, and Roberto Firmino in particular, from afar last season.
This withdrawn role allows him to link up with the midfielders, and is where his combination play with Keita has happened. The former RB Leipzig man has the ability to break forward into the box in the space left by Sturridge, while the Englishman is now able showcase his excellent, and often underrated range of passing from this No.10 position. The striker is also able to beat opposition players with the ball at his feet despite a supposed drop in pace, as the intelligence, movement, and skill is still very much intact.
“I love that guy,” Sturridge said of Keita.
“I’m surprised how good he is actually, if I’m honest. I knew he was good but I don’t watch German football too often.
“I haven’t seen a midfielder like him for a while, he is something different. It’s crazy. The things he can do with the ball – he can defend, he can pass, he can dribble, he is fast, he is strong. He has got everything.
“I sit next to him in the changing room and we have a lot of banter. My French is terrible but I try my best. His English is OK. We share some good times and have a lot of laughs together. I like him a lot, he’s a good guy.”
This burgeoning relationship will hopefully flourish beyond pre-season, and if both players are able to stay fit there is no reason why it shouldn’t. Not since he latched onto Philippe Coutinho’s endless supply of through-balls has Sturridge had a team-mate who compliments him so well, and the roles here could interchange with each turning provider for the other in different situations.
Liverpool are in need of quality alternatives to the high-profile front three of Firmino, Mohamed Salah, and Sadio Mane. If he has the resilience and durability, then Sturridge definitely has the quality to be another option, alongside Xherdan Shaqiri. His collaboration with Keita could give him the edge, and be an unexpected bonus for Jurgen Klopp’s squad this season.
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by Tom Bodell