Naby Keita’s style of play explained – and why it makes him so valuable to RB Leipzig
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. It is always extra satisfying to come across a shirt sponsor that holds a special, unintended relevance or connection to a club or player.
Think Lee Sharpe wearing a Manchester United kit emblazoned with the name of a electrical company one letter short of his own, or Jan Molby wearing Carlsberg at Liverpool – a Danish midfielder whose physique encouraged the odd beer belly jibe, for a side whose fans were never in doubt that their team were the best in the world. No probably about it.
While the Newcastle Brown Ale era of Newcastle United jerseys was an example of a more intentional connection being made, it remained an apt association that turned those shirts into instant classics.
Over in Germany, RB Leipzig currently possess the perfect player to turn out for a Red Bull-backed football team in their non-stop, box-to-box dynamo, Naby Keita. If he was a beverage, he would be an energy drink – a sharp, fizzing hyperactive blur of a footballer who is wanted by clubs all around Europe.
Ready-made for Red Bull
Yet it’s no accident that the midfielder suits the brand values of last season’s runners-up in the Bundesliga. They have more in common with Newcastle than United or Liverpool in that respect. After years of sponsorship deals with extreme sports, Red Bull know what they want from their football teams, and the style of play that should be promoted to tie into their brand values.
In 2012 they appointed the former Schalke manager Ralf Rangnick as Sporting Director at Red Bull Salzburg, Leipzig’s sister club in Austria, to ensure their demands for high adrenaline football was translated into a philosophy set down from on high. Why is this relevant to Keita?
The Guinea international spent two seasons at Salzburg before being moved on to join the German side of the operation in 2016, enabling him to make a seamless transition playing for a side created to follow the same intensive, counter-pressing template set out by Rangnick.
An all-action all-rounder
He wasted no time in showing what he could do for the newly promoted side in their very first season in the Bundesliga, providing the drive to send them straight into the title race and the Champions League places in their first attempt.
On his league debut, he scored the winner against Borussia Dortmund to set the tone for a campaign that would see the newcomers supplant Thomas Tuchel’s side as the closest challengers to Bayern Munich in 2016/17.
Keita went on to complete more take-ons than any central midfielder across the continent’s top five leagues with 83. Dortmund winger Ousmane Dembele was the only player in the Bundesliga to boast more, with 103.
He was also joint second for successful through balls in the German top flight, completing seven – only two fewer than former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, who topped the ranking for that particular metric.
When he wasn’t trying to slip passes through to try and find runners, or charging at opponents himself to beat them with his speed and skill on the ball, Keita was getting to work to win possession and take control of games.
The 22-year-old won 2.05 tackles per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga and made 3.05 interceptions, putting in an average of 4.58 defensive actions and winning 7.52 duels per 90.
Box-to-box in every sense
A return of eight goals and seven assists in 31 games is impressive for such an industrious central midfielder, who does so much for his team in every phase of play. That tally effectively adds up to one goal scored or created every two games.
He is not only a focal point for Leipzig but the personification of their style of play, exploiting his athleticism and tenacity to turn every transition into an opportunity. While RB may be less obsessed with hoarding possession than many of their rivals, instead preferring to set themselves to hit teams hard on the break, Keita still managed to average 52.5 passes per 90 minutes last season, completing a steady 81% of his attempts.
Rather than spraying the ball about from deep, however, he likes to keep things in close quarters, with an average pass length of only 15 metres, playing it quick to bring moves forward up the pitch, giving and going, to build a crescendo of momentum to arrive in dangerous positions at full steam.
Everything Liverpool could want
Liverpool were thwarted in their attempts to sign Keita this summer. Chairman Oliver Mintzlaff and director of football Ralf Rangnick have stood firm – they do not want Leipzig to appear weak or easy to deal with when it comes to selling off their best players. They see a bright future for their club filled with trophies at home and abroad, not a middling existence as one of many teams in the Bundesliga.
Instead, a deal has been struck. Keita will become a Liverpool player. The Reds will merely have to wait a year. According to the Times, the midfielder’s official moving date is July 1 2018. It’s a compromise that should suit all parties.
Jurgen Klopp gets the player. Leipzig can save face will also bringing in a tidy sum to sell on their greatest on-field asset. Even Liverpool’s owners stand to gain. Claims that Fenway Sports Group don’t spend money on the squad will now be hard to maintain. It has taken them all summer to nail down the details but they have got their man.
A match-winning machine capable of scoring goals, setting up chances, dominating games and bringing his opposite numbers to heel, Keita’s arrival at Anfield will be better late than never.
[Editor’s note: this article was updated on August 28 2017]