When Naby Keita signed for Liverpool last year, it seemed like an obvious fit. Liverpool needed a dynamic force in the middle and Keita craved that next hopeful step. This season has hence been a tangibly dire affair for him as he has seemingly longed for it to finish.
However, this has also meant that his playing time has been limited. While this may have been due to mediocre form, it is most of all down to his questionable disciplinary record which has seen him sent off twice in the Bundesliga and cost RB Leipzig points in the process. In a season full of ups and downs, it does seem like yellow and red cards have become the main talking point but, the Guinea international remains a shining light in a currently struggling side.
He was signed from RB Salzburg the summer before last as part of another obvious deal between the two ‘Red Bull’ clubs of Germanic football. Following an outstanding season at the highest of levels, a transfer to Liverpool was imminent and the announcement was only confirmation of a widely-accepted fact, Keita would be playing football at Anfield in 2018.
While most considered him a perfect fit for a midfield spot in Jürgen Klopp’s intense pressing system, many also regarded the Guinean as a tad inexperienced and rash. Some even claimed that he was not ready for Liverpool yet. In some ways, this season might have proven them right.
Keita’s season has been inconsistent. Sensational performances with long-range goals and dynamic masterclasses have been mixed with dire and inexcusable dismissals, with Leipzig’s season following suit. At one point, it even looked like RB Leipzig head coach Ralph Hasenhüttl might keep him out of the squad to stabilise things, for he was a constant insecurity. They never knew if he was going to turn up or not, never sure of which Keita was going to star for them. Was it the brilliant, vibrant box-to-box midfielder that propelled Leipzig into Europe last season, or was it the rash and inexperienced Keita that threw himself into tackles that not even Lothar Matthäus would have bothered with?
The Conakry-born Guinean has managed six goals and five assists in 26 Bundesliga games this season – an undoubtedly decent output from a box-to-box midfielder for the 6thplaced Saxonian outfit. Keita has reprised his role as the key man in midfield, but has often been joined by a similar player in Kevin Kampl. His defensive work has therefore become limited, with both Kampl and stalwart defensive midfielder Diego Demme playing in deeper positions across the midfield.
However, this change of role was regarded as a masterstroke from head coach Hasenhüttl, as he could free Keita of his defensive responsibilities, a smart move considering that the player’s attacking attributes are superior. His partnership with these two has often worked well, even though he has struggled when Kampl has not played. Without his midfield partner, Keita still performs his attacking duties but tends to neglect his defensive ones, thus leaving Demme somewhat exposed. Standing in for Emil Forsberg in an attacking sense, Keita has performed that role impressively, but his discipline has fallen behind.
Three red cards and seven yellows in the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal makes him is one of the most booked and sent-off players in German football this season. At one point between September and October, Keita was sent off for the third time in seven games for both club and country, with bosses at the Bundesliga club defending him suggesting that he was being treated unfairly. One plausible reason for this lack of discipline is that his future move to Liverpool has affected him, suggesting that his mind is elsewhere.
Another being that his role in Hasenhüttl’s outfit this season requires more aggression than last. Occupying a defensive-based role last campaign, Keita now finds himself further up the pitch, supporting the attack in a position just head of the midfield pivot. With intense pressing, Keita pressuring the opposition defence has seen him pick up numerous bookings.
This is because Keita is a forceful player, a midfielder who is as aggressive as he is strategically smart in possession. Klopp’s system relies on pressing and intensity, which is why many also consider that this season’s more aggressive Keita might even fit in at Liverpool even better than a season before. While last season’s statistics were more impressive due to his fantastic goal scoring and assist records, this campaign has further developed Keita into a much more well-rounded player. Some of the tackles he has thrown himself into have been a bit rash, but some of the cards that he has received have also been harsh.
Jack Brace, creator of Red Bull Hub, states that Keita has been a shining light in a struggling side despite what his disciplinary record might suggest: “When he isn’t receiving marching orders, the Guinean has been the catalyst that has kept Leipzig’s fatigued motor from breaking down, showcasing his importance in each third of the pitch as well as proving his worth against Europe’s best.”
Discipline and aggressiveness aside, this season has shown us that Keita has the can-do attitude to get the best out of players around him. RB Leipzig have certainly stagnated in comparison to last season, especially defensively, but Keita has become instrumental in their hunt for form and stability at the top of the table, with European football still a possibility.
There is the possibility that Keita may become a problem player for Klopp with his disciplinary issues. However, if the Liverpool coach can control the 23-year-old, Keita will become key.
His ferociousness and determination are something that the German strives for in his midfield and Keita would provide the answer, perhaps even more so now because he is more suited to playing several roles in midfield, given his change in role at Leipzig. Those in love with German football can only mourn the loss of a brilliant little player, who shines up any highlight reel, while Keita linking up with Klopp promises something special.
By Axel Falk.