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Liverpool's wage bill needs serious trimming this summer

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The stage was set for Naby Keita to re-assert himself on the grandest stage after yet another season in which he has largely resided in the periphery for Liverpool. Starting in place of Thiago Alcântara against Real Madrid, his surprise inclusion was a major show of faith from Jürgen Klopp.

Before the game, when questioned regarding his selection, Klopp was effusive in his praise of the Guinea international, citing his consistently impressive performances in training as the primary reason why he couldn’t leave him out.



“He is in a really good moment and he brings special things in,” Klopp said. "Real kind of man-mark, so you need dribblers who can turn and make the next situation a big advantage. That is Naby's job tonight.”



In reality, though, the plan never even came close to fruition. Both in and out of possession, Keita was virtually anonymous throughout Liverpool’s dismal first-half display in which they were comprehensively outplayed by the hosts. He was far from alone in that regard, it should be said, but the fact Klopp felt the need to haul him off in the 42nd minute rather than waiting until half-time to make the change spoke volumes.



Almost none of what Keita was brought in to provide – intensity in the press, composure and agility in tight spaces, the ability to break the lines with incisive passing and dribbling – was evident, bar one slaloming run in the 22nd minute which offered a momentary glimpse of excellence. That aside, he was a passenger as the action unfolded around him without being able to make any kind of tangible contribution.

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And while Klopp was right to emphasise that Keita wasn’t directly responsible for the lackadaisical nature of Liverpool’s performance, especially when taking into account this was just his second start of the calendar year thus far, there comes a point whereby some serious questions have to be asked about Keita’s future and whether he offers enough – both in terms of availability and impact when selected – to persist with for another season.

With less than two months of the season to go, Keita has made only nine starts, featuring for a total of 683 minutes across all competitions, which follows 16 starts and 1372 minutes last season, and 22 starts and 1817 minutes in 2018/19. It’s worth noting that he has been a part of several of Liverpool’s best wins this season, such as those against Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester City and the 7-0 drubbing of Crystal Palace in the first half of the campaign, so it’s not as if he’s incapable of performing at a very high level. Indeed, there are numerous other examples from the past two seasons where he has demonstrated the kind of qualities everyone had anticipated from him following his £52.75m arrival from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2018.

Nearly three years on, though, it’s suffice to say that Keita has fallen drastically short of hopes and expectations, particularly given his former status as one of Europe’s most coveted up-and-coming midfielders with the potential to radically transform Liverpool’s midfield for the better. The harsh truth now is that if a poll were to be conducted of the global Liverpool supporter base regarding the pecking order of Liverpool’s midfield options ahead of next season, Keita would probably rank no higher than fifth at best – and that’s assuming that Gini Wijnaldum moves on as a free agent, with no clarity yet as to whether Liverpool will pursue a direct replacement.

Having turned 26 in February, Keita is now entering what should be the prime of his career, and yet he feels no closer to establishing himself as a Liverpool regular. The following possibility must therefore be considered: should Liverpool be looking to sell if a suitable offer comes in this summer?

With two years left on his current deal, and seemingly no imminent prospects of an extension, this upcoming transfer window is likely to represent Liverpool’s last feasible chance to cash in on Keita for a reasonable fee and cut their losses. If they were to wait another year, his value would significantly diminish once he enters the final 12 months of his contract, in which case Liverpool would be facing another Wijnaldum-type situation.

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The difficulty, of course, will be finding a suitor willing to offer a package which appeals to all parties. What kind of fee would Liverpool accept? £35m? £30m? Less than £30m? In a Covid-distorted market and for a player with such a chequered injury record, it’s extremely difficult to determine what Keita’s worth actually is. Also, does Keita actively want to move in search of more regular first team football? Or is he determined to work his way back into the picture at Liverpool in the knowledge that Wijnaldum’s departure opens up an extra space, while James Milner is likely to see his game time reduce even further as he moves deeper into his 30s? Perhaps most importantly, do Liverpool feel his fitness problems are correctable, or are they something which will only continue and maybe even worsen with age? All of these issues will need to be factored into any decision.

But Keita isn’t the only one in a predicament of this nature. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, too, has barely featured at all this season and at the age of 27, faces a very similar set of uncertainties around his future at the club. Both players reportedly earn £120,000 per week, and Liverpool are getting very little out of them whatsoever. When the likes of Divock Origi (circa £60,000 per week) and Xherdan Shaqiri (circa £80,000 per week) are folded into the equation, all of a sudden Liverpool could look to shed close to £400,000 per week in wages this summer.

It may be that they ultimately decide to keep either one of Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain (possibly even both), or that they don’t receive offers they deem to be suitable. Whereas Origi and Shaqiri quite clearly sit in the ‘dead wood’ category, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain occupy more of a grey area where the answer isn’t quite so binary as to what Liverpool do with them.

If they can move on one or the other, if not both, then it will undoubtedly give them much greater flexibility in terms of incoming signings this summer who may be better suited to the needs of the team, and, crucially, available when Liverpool need them.

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