Keïta Watch #1: RB Leipzig vs SC Freiburg

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After what was seemed like an eternity, and often at times an impossible task, Liverpool were able to finally able to agree on a deal with RB Leipzig for the services of the highly rated Naby Keïta. Despite rejecting two substantial offers from the Reds (the second totalling a hefty £66million) earlier in the window, the German side negotiated a deal that would see the Anfield side pay a premium to pay the Guinean’s £48million release clause now and the Bundesliga club keep Keïta for the forthcoming season.

In a transfer market that continues to dramatically inflate day-by-day, a fee totalling £51million is incredible business for a player that has been linked with the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the past. Unfortunately for Liverpool fans, they will have to wait 12 months before they can see him take to the Anfield pitch. Therefore, for those of you who can’t wait and want to learn more about the club’s record-signing, here at AnfieldEdition we will be giving you an in-depth review of every game that Keïta plays in this season; starting off with RB Leipzig’s 4-1 win over SC Freiburg.

Ralph Hasenhüttl lined up his side in his traditional 4-2-2-2 formation, with Keïta lining up in a central pivot alongside Diego Damme. The two playmakers in the team, Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg, aren’t deployed as traditional widemen meaning that much of Leipzig’s play flows through the middle of the park. Therefore, it is critical that the two strikers, in this case Timo Werner and Jean-Kévin Augustin, are always moving up top, to give the likes of Keïta and Forsberg options when in possession.

Keita touch map vs Freiburg

Throughout the game Keïta fulfilled a number of different areas on the pitch; whether that be just in front of the back-line or right up alongside Werner and Augustin (see touch map above). From this it would be easy to mistake him for the typical modern day box-to-box midfielder, who doesn’t excel at any one area but is competent at every single one. However, that is not the case with the 22-year-old as, whilst his defensive attributes are adequate and will do the job, it is his attacking armoury that has viewers so fascinated.

What is so special about Naby is that he will often start phase one of the Die Bullen’s attacks and will still be in contention to finish off the move he started at the end (an example of this will be shown later on). Leipzig’s two centre-halves, Willi Orban and Dayot Upamecano, completed the most amount of passes for any outfield player against Freiburg, but the majority of these were short passes to either Demme or Keïta. Whilst Orban and Upamecano aren’t the most gifted on the ball, the likely reason for this is due to Keïta’s unbelievable ability to drive Leipzig forward and spot passes that many other central midfielders in the Bundesliga can’t. Just like any other manager, Hasenhüttl has discovered a strength in one of his players and has developed it into the foundation of how his side play. The Austrian coach’s gameplan means having purposeful possesion and that requires someone who is efficient at either covering ground with the ball over a significant distance or someone that can play the ball forward without risk of a turn-over. Naby Keïta ticks both of these boxes and that is exactly why he is arguably the most critical man in Leipzig’s attacks.

Delving more into his exquisite work with the ball, Keïta is excellent at perfecting any length of pass and making risks look second nature to him. Last season for Leipzig, Keïta had on average per game: the most through balls (0.2), the highest pass length out of any midfielder (45.9) ,the highest pass percentage (81.8%) and the second most key passes (1.3). This shows not only is he effective with his distribution, but he is also efficient and that is such a highly critical part of Leipzig being able to dominate and, ultimately, win games. The reason for these stunning statistics is the fact that he isn’t shy to show for the ball. As mentioned above, he was consistently demanding the ball from teammates and this desire to push the team forward is something that will definitely help take the pressure off the likes of Philippe Coutinho and/or Adam Lallana next season. Especially when you factor in how Freiburg were quick to press Leipzig during the opening 20 minutes, effectively neutralising the impact of Emil Forsberg, which is when Keïta took hold of the game and acted as the main creative outlet. This is key because he will most likely line up alongside either the creative Lallana or Coutinho in 2017/18 and a similar situation like what happened two weeks ago is bound to arise again.

However, it’s not just his ability on the ball which was to be admired. When Damme was the player that dropped deep to receive possession from the centre-halve, the former RB Salzburg player didn’t stay static. He was regularly on his toes and in most cases during the first half he would drift in between opposition lines ready and waiting to receive a pass. This is one part of his game that would have gone heavily under the radar, but it demonstrated an intelligence that is rarely seen in football these days as Keïta carried out the role that he would expect a teammate to occupy when he is on the ball. This unbelievable awareness is something he will be able to carry out in the big games in England when that type of space between the lines is available. But, in the so-called ‘smaller games’, that Liverpool have traditionally struggled in over recent seasons, where this much freedom won’t be available. This is when his ability to break the lines of these teams preferred deep block systems with a single pass will come into effect, as when Lallana or Coutinho are marked out of the game, whilst the likes of Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum are almost unstoppable when moving with the ball at their feet, they aren’t able to break through with a single threaded pass like the current Leipzig man can. This unpredictable mix of different styles is what makes Keïta so hard to defend against for opposition defenders and is what allowed him to notch seven Bundesliga assists last season.

Moving on, arguably his greatest asset is his ability to roam forward with the ball and to leave opposition players in his wake. There was one key example of this in gameweek two and it summed up what he does so productively. Midway through the first half Leipzig received a throw-in on the right touchline inside their own half and to no surprise it was Keïta who came deep to receive the ball. At this point, Freiburg were 1-0 up in the game and their high-press tactics were coming to fruition; that was until this specific incident. Keïta, under pressure from three opposition players, took the ball down on his chest with his back to goal and seemingly with nowhere to go. However, he demonstrated his decisive, quick-thinking to full effect, before flicking the ball over his ahead and using his low centre of gravity to leave the opposition in his wake. After what had been a frustrating afternoon for the hosts so far, this single bit of play had suddenly opened up the whole opposition midfield and Keïta didn’t need a second invitation to exploit to the full. Normally when in this situation most players would get ahead of themselves and mess up the critical final ball, but not Keïta as he exhibited a calm head and picked out Augustin; who ultimately shot wide, despite the 22-year-old once again showing his footballing intelligence and carrying on his run into a much better goalscoring position than the one the Frenchman unleashed his powerful strike from. It took Keïta just eight seconds to conduct this attacking move after receiving the ball from a throw-in facing his own goal, but it displays exactly why he ended the 2016/17 Bundesliga season with the second most take-ons (77) and has already soared to the top of this season’s standings for that specific statistic.

Whilst his attacking prowess is mouth-watering to watch, Keïta’s defensive work definitely should not go unnoticed. He has something that Jürgen Klopp admires and wants in every single one of his players and that is an abundance of stamina. Klopp’s gegenpressing game plan is right up the Guinean’s street, as Keïta is seemingly the first player to swarm the opposition when they receive the ball. Evidence of this was when, after one of his long, mazy runs forward, Leipzig lost the ball right inside the opposition box. Reluctant to just get rid of all danger and risk handing possession back to the home side, Freiburg attempted to play the ball out from the back and this is when Keïta’s high press won them the ball immediately back, leaving the away side baffled and disorganised, and almost led to a goal. It could be argued that if Freiburg had cleared the ball away and won the second ball that would have left Damme isolated in the middle of the park. However, Keïta deserves credit for taking the risk and stopping their chance of a counter attack at the very earliest oppurtunity. Furthermore, he will be a part of a three-man midfield at Liverpool, compared to the two at Leipzig, so will have plenty of license to push forward.

Within just 90 minutes of seeing Keïta play, you will be able to see why Klopp was so passionate about spending big money to get this man into the club. Whilst all LFC fans will have to wait another 35 Premier League games until they see their record-signing in action, it finally looks as if Liverpool have found the perfect player to take over the legendary number eight shirt.

By Taylor Powling (@TayIorSport)

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