If his first two competitive league games for Liverpool are anything to go by, then Naby Keita is on his way to becoming one of the most gifted and talented players in world football.
After finally arriving following his £52m move from RB Leipzig last summer, the Guinean has shown that he has all the ability and talent to become the complete midfielder and fill the boots of a certain Steven Gerrard.
Yes, the way Gerrard operated was completely different to how Keita goes about his business, but the point stands that the midfield department has been lacking this sort of spark and bite since the now Rangers manager left in 2015.
The streets of Guinea…
The 23-year-old was born in the capital of Guinea, Conakry, back in 1995, which if you didn’t know was the year Everton last won a trophy.
Keita began his footballing career at the age of just nine, signing for local team Horoya AC. During his early years in the game, he earned the nickname ‘Deco’ because of his similarity in play to the ex-Barcelona midfielder. In an interview with Goal, Keita claimed that as a youngster he “would play anywhere there was open space, which was often on the street and we would have to dodge the cars”. Although he stands at just 5 feet and six inches tall, he is incredibly strong on the ball and his low centre of gravity gives him the power to glide past opponents with ease.
Despite his parent’s worries, Keita made the journey to North-Western France in an attempt to win a contract at FC Lorient before being rejected after being deemed not good enough.
He then tried out at fellow French side Le Mans, a club who rated Keita highly. However financial difficulties saw them plunge into bankruptcy, leaving them unable to sign the then 18-year-old. Rejection and misfortune didn’t derail him though and thanks to ex-Celtic man Bobo Balde, Keita finally got his chance. In an amateur tournament arranged by Balde, Keita impressed the scouts of Ligue 2 side FC Istres, with whom he went on to sign a three-year deal.
How Red Bull gave him wings…
After impressing during his time at the Stade Parsemain, Keita caught the eye of ex-Liverpool boss and current Red Bull Salzburg Head of Global Football Gérard Houllier. Just months later, the Austrian side agreed to acquire his services for €1.5m. Keita settled in almost immediately and managed to rack up forty-four appearances during his first campaign at Die Roten Bullen, scoring six goals in the process to help achieve a domestic double. Despite featuring less the following year, he had a much more productive year in front of goal. In his thirty-seven appearances, Keita found the net fourteen times as he was voted as the Austrian Bundesliga Player of the Year. Not bad for a player, who according to Leon Osman, is simply a destroyer…
Unsurprisingly the next step in Keita’s career would see him travel across the border to sign for sister club RB Leipzig. Under the management and guidance of Ralph Hasenhüttl, the versatile midfielder would become one of the most sought after players in world football. His time in Germany showed that he has the ability and skillset to be employed almost anywhere in the midfield, whether it be as a six, eight or even a ten. His maiden year at the Red Bull Arena saw him contribute to fifteen goals in his thirty-one league appearances, helping the club reach the Champions League for the first time in their eight-year history. In a poll by Kicker, Naby Keita finished as the second best player in the Bundesliga for that season, being topped only by Robert Lewandowski, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Even before the season was complete, reports came out saying that Jürgen Klopp was desperate to add the player to his reformed Liverpool side. Both Hasenhüttl and Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick shut down the possibility of Keita leaving in the summer window, with the intention on building on their strong campaign. Rangnick, also formerly of RB Salzburg, claimed midway through the season that he wouldn’t even swap the player for Paul Pogba. Keita’s agent Bjorn Bezemer reportedly made it clear to the club that his client had his heart set on a move to Anfield, however a move still looked in doubt. This was until Keita seemingly let out his frustrations and anger during a soaked training session in the East of Germany. The video link below speaks for itself.
Klopp gets his man…
Just over a month later, Red Bull gave in and decided to sanction the sale of Keita in a deal that would see him join the Reds the following year. The fee has always remained undisclosed, however it is reported that it could eventually rise as high as £66m, meaning it was a then club record signing for the Merseysiders. RB Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff later revealed that Liverpool beat off competition from the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich to sign Keita.
Many watchers of the Bundesliga claim that he was far from his best last season, and it seemed apparent that his heart wasn’t all there. He picked up two league red cards in his twenty-seven appearances as many started to question his aggression and discipline. Keita did however still manage to contribute to sixteen goals across the year, scoring nine times and claiming seven assists. Leipzig finished in sixth place, a disappointing season considering their achievements twelve months earlier.
Keita was finally able to join Liverpool officially on the 1st of July this year and he made his non-competitive debut just seven days later as the Reds thumped Chester FC 7-0. Appearances against Tranmere Rovers, Bury and Blackburn Rovers followed as the new man showed his worth ahead of the new season.
It’s still early days but it’s fair to say that Naby Keita has already shown that he will soon become one of the best midfielders in the division and there’s no reason why he can’t progress that to Europe as well.
To finish off, here’s a video of him sending Andros Townsend back to Newcastle. More importantly though, it shows his ability to transition from defence to attack in just a matter of seconds which is something we will see all season.