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Naby Keïta

RB Leipzig to Liverpool, £52.5m

The first player to wear Liverpool’s number 8 shirt since the retirement of Steven Gerrard, Naby Keïta arrived at Anfield  last summer for a transfer fee reported to be £52.5m. They thus became the Guinea international’s fourth professional club across four European countries.

It all started for Keïta as a teenager with FC Istres of the French second division, and he impressed there despite them suffering relegation in his one and only season in the first team. A move to Red Bull Salzburg followed, where in two seasons the improving young midfielder won successive Austrian league-and-cup doubles. At the end of that second year, aged only 21 he was named Austrian Bundesliga Player of the Year.

It wasn’t long before another Red Bull-sponsored team, Leipzig, swooped for an individual who was starting to alert scouts across Europe. They were newly promoted to the German Bundesliga, and Keïta was to swiftly have a huge impact. He scored a last-minute winner on his debut, against Borussia Dortmund, and a further seven goals as Leipzig finished second only to Bayern Munich and qualified for the Champions League in their first season in the top flight. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool were quick to act, meeting the £48m release clause in Keïta’s contract but with the move agreed – subject to add-ons related to Leipzig’s league finish – for the following summer. That transfer then took place with Keïta joining on the back of a season in which he scored 10 goals but received no fewer than four red cards for club and country.

Tactical analysis
In possession, Keïta’s movements to drop into deeper midfield positions can cause the opposition multiple problems. If his marker allows him to move to the ball unchallenged he can drive forward from deep, gaining momentum and speed through the heart of midfield (above) and towards the final third. If his marker follows, this will instead open up central passing lanes for Keïta to exploit by breaking lines.

The explosive nature and variety of Keïta’s movements make it very difficult for opponents to read him. Simply man-marking him will also prove difficult, as he varies the angles of approach during his movements. If double-marked by opposing defenders he is more than capable of sustaining possession by assisting the build from deeper positions.

Keïta’s physicality is also very impressive. Despite dropping short frequently, he is then able to burst forward away from possession, helping penetrate the final third and grabbing goals from late runs into the penalty area. His box-to-box runs are consistent and effective, as he also works back tirelessly during moments of defensive transition.

Despite his impressive work rate and penetrative ball-playing abilities, Keïta’s aerial control is poor – and this can leave his team vulnerable on the counter-attack. If and when used as a defensive midfielder, long aerial balls from deep will cause issues for a player who stands a relatively diminutive 5ft 8ins. If lacking support, Keïta can also lose possession needlessly – particularly when trying to tidy up loose second balls (below).

Role this season
Keïta is expected to feature more regularly over the coming 12 months in Klopp’s 4-3-3 structure as one of the two more advanced of the three midfielders. His agility and speed both in and out of possession is a wonderful asset for Liverpool’s central midfield. Last season, with Klopp employing various combinations of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool lacked significant pace from deeper positions in central midfield. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also again fit, Keïta’s and his directness in possession will give Liverpool’s attacks a welcome, further impetus.

Not unlike N’Golo Kante at Chelsea, Keïta can cover large distances with ease, and rarely shows signs of fatigue when pressing. Perhaps unlike the defensively-superb Kante, however, Keïta is just as effective in attacking areas, his ability in possession as productive in the final third as it is anywhere else on the pitch. This hasn’t necessarily translated into goals, however – in his combined four seasons with Salzburg and Leipzig, Keïta registered more than 10 league goals only once. Liverpool will regardless look to the 24-year-old to start adding firepower and further variety to their already potent attack. Their intense high press, coupled with Keïta’s own ability to drive forward at pace, should guarantee him plenty of chances.

Out of possession, many have noted the midfielder’s previously-poor disciplinary record. His relative youth and background as a wide attacker have perhaps both contributed to his occasionally-reckless tackling in one-on-one situations, although he is less likely to be punished for this in England than on the continent; his foul and card count should drop once he’s playing regularly in the Premier League.

Naby Keïta

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