The Rise of Naby Keita
A look at the fascinating journey of the RB Leipzig youngster.
One of the main talking points for all Liverpool fans after the departure of Kop legend Steven Gerrard from the club, has been which player will be deemed worthy enough of donning the iconic number 8 jersey worn by the former club captain. The jersey has been vacant for more than 2 years now. But, the early agreement of the transfer of Guinea international Naby Keita from RB Leipzig (effective 1 July 2018) has led to most believing that the 22-year-old midfielder will be the next player to take the prestigious jersey number.
The fact that Liverpool were willing to wait for a year for their would-be record signing (with the fee expected to be in the range of £51 million) illustrates how much Jurgen Klopp covets the young midfielder. It had been reported that the club had no transfer alternatives for the player. With his unique playing skills, there wasn’t any other player who could be considered as a like-for-like alternative for Keita. While it’s still early days in the player’s career, the talent that he boasts could see him potential become a legend with skills that would classify as “not a jack of all trades, but a master of all” midfielder.
His playing style could be described as that of the perfect box-to-box midfielder and his athleticism, vision and tenacity helps him to contribute in both attack and defence. He has impressed everyone with his dribbling skills and range of passing, to create “something out of nothing”. What makes him an invaluable asset to any team is that he supplements his attacking skills with the ability to win tackles and reclaim the ball from opponents.
His football statistics show that in an offensive role, his numbers compare to the best playmakers, and the defensive statistics are similar to that of a top holding midfielder. After seeing his team’s game against RB Leipzig recently, Schalke’s director Christian Heidel equated facing the midfielder as playing against two players. “Everyone has seen that RB are a top team, especially since they played with 12 today. Naby Keita plays for two! The kid is unbelievable, I've rarely seen anything like it. Even when three [Schalke players] were on him, he somehow managed to keep hold of the ball.”
The midfielder is referred to as the “African Deco”, with the relatively short Naby (with 1.72m/5’8” height) having a similar build to the Portuguese. He even changed his name from Naby Laye Keita (named at birth), dropping "Laye" as his middle name - and now calls himself “Naby Deco Keita”.
It has been a meteoric rise for the youngster, who wasn’t widely known a few months back before Liverpool’s active interest in his signature, from the humble beginnings in his native Guinea to being one of the most sought-after players in Europe, with most top clubs tracking him before Liverpool won the race to his signature by sealing his signature a year before he would actually join the Reds.
Beginnings in Guinea and France
Born on February 10, 1995 in an impoverished household in the capital city of Conakry in Guinea.
He played football on the streets with his brothers, but the humble background meant that ensuring football equipment for Naby never featured in the priorities of the family. In an interview to Bundesliga.com, he shared “I always looked forward to going to the supermarket with my mother. There were a lot of round things to play football with. Unfortunately, there were also things like lampshades, which got broken. My mum always says that shopping with me was very expensive!”
Keita joined the local football club Horaya AC at the age of 9, and decided to seek a professional career in Europe when he was 16 and undertook a 6000 kilometres journey to France. Once in the country, Keita lodged with fellow Guinea footballer Guy-Michel Landel (who would later go on to be Keita’s international teammate), who was at Le Mans FC. Unsuccessful trials at Le Mans and FC Lorient left Keita dejected.
Luck then favoured Keita as he was able to connect with fellow Guinean, Bodo Balde (who had represented the national side, and also spent many successful seasons at Celtic) in a talent spotting tournament in Marseille. With Balde’s support, Keita soon was picked up by Ligue 2 side Istres for their youth side.
Istres decided to promote Keita to their first team in the 2013-14 season.
Having played his first international for Guinea in July 2013, Keita made his debut in Ligue 2 in November 2013. While Istres went on to be relegated at the end of season, Keita was able to give enough glimpses of his potential for the Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg to sign him in the summer of 2014.
Red Bull’s Global Soccer scout Benoit Thans had been monitoring the player at Istres, and had sent a very positive feedback to Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director of RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. The head of global football for Red Bull (and also former Liverpool manager) Gerard Houllier also recommended Keita to Rangnick and it was a matter of time before the player arrived in Salzburg.
Finding wings with Red Bull
Arriving in Austria for a reported fee in excess of £1 million, Keita’s paths crossed with likely-future-Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane (though it was only for a few days as Mane moved to Southampton at the end of the same transfer window).
He made his league debut in July 2014 and enjoyed a successful season which saw his team winning the domestic double, and the player contributing 5 goals and 2 assists. The team also made it to the Round of 32 in the Europa League, and Keita scoring his first European goal in the 3-1 win over Celtic.
The following season of 2015-16 saw Keita raise his game to a higher level and he scored 12 goals and provided 7 assists in the league to win the Austrian Bundesliga Player of the Year award, as his team went on to win the domestic double yet again.
Red Bull decided to move the player to Salzburg’s sister team – RB Leipzig in 2016, with the German team just gaining promotion to Bundesliga. Keita made his Bundesliga debut in the game against Borussia Dortmund – coming on as a substitute in the 84th minute and scoring the only goal of the match.
RB Leipzig were the surprise package in the Bundesliga season, as the team finished a credible second ahead of the more fancied teams like Dortmund, and qualified for the Champions League group stage for the 2017-18 season.
Keita played an instrumental role in the team’s success as he contributed 8 goals and 7 assists, and also bagged the Man of the Match award thrice in the league.
Keita’s impact didn’t go unnoticed as he came second behind Robert Lewandowski in the post-season poll by Kicker for the best outfield player in the Bundesliga.
Summer transfer window of 2017
With many top teams in Europe looking to strengthen in the summer transfer window of 2017, it was no surprise that many of them had taken note of Keita’s skills and performances. Clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United and Inter Milan were rumoured to be interested in signing the player, while Liverpool offered bids rumoured to be as high as £70 million – a figure much higher than their existing transfer record.
Clubs were aware of the presence of an exit-clause of £48 million in Keita’s contract with RB Leipzig, which comes into effect in 2018.
German giants Bayern Munich were believed to be monitoring his situation to try to attempt to sign him for the exit fee – like they’ve done so often to buy the best talent from Bundesliga rivals.
The player informed the club of his wish to leave and join Liverpool to work with Klopp, but Rangnick wasn’t willing to let go off his prized asset.
Liverpool ultimately accepted that they couldn’t sign Keita for the 2016-17 season, and came to an agreement with RB Leipzig for the player’s transfer becoming effective July 1, 2018 for a fee slightly higher than the exit-clause in his contract, which would him the club’s most expensive signing till date.
The road ahead
With Keita’s future sorted, he will now look to help his current team, RB Leipzig, in the 2017-18 Bundesliga season, as well as their maiden participation in the Champions League. Rangnick and coach Ralph Hasenhuttl will be banking on the player to once again inspire the team to a strong season in Germany as well as Europe.
The player idolizes Yaya Toure, and hopes to emulate the Ivory Coast midfielder by winning the award for the best African footballer.
While he has enjoyed success at a young age, Naby Keita is still in the early days of his career. It has been a fascinating journey for the player from the humble environment in Guinea to be a prized target of the biggest clubs in football.
After an impressive first year, he has the opportunity to showcase his skills in the Bundesliga this season before he moves to the Merseyside to work with Klopp.
The playing styles of RB Leipzig as well as Klopp’s Liverpool are well suited to Keita’s game and he will look to enhance his game and achieve more success in the coming years both at club level and the international stage.
It is reported that the player has requested for the number 8 jersey at Liverpool when he joins them, and he will look forward to enjoying the challenge of meeting the legendary standards set by Steven Gerrard at Anfield. His talent and potential are unquestionable, and Keita will look to go on to have a successful career and be counted among the best players in the world.