Something big is happening in Leipzig and Naby Keita is at the heart of it.
“The atmosphere in the team is amazing but it’s like that at every level of the club. You sense that something big is happening here.” These were Keita’s words to Bundesliga.com in late November. Keita’s phrase “something big” almost undersells the rise of the Red Bulls since they arrived in the top flight; however, something that simply cannot be understated is the importance that Naby Keita has had in Leipzig’s phenomenal rise since they arrived in the Bundesliga.
The trip from Salzburg to Leipzig is becoming a well-trodden path for a number of footballers, as the brightest talents emerging at the Red Bull franchise in Austria now often cross the border to East Germany – much to the increasing displeasure of those in charge at Salzburg, it must be noted. So far, those who’ve made the switch from one Red Bull outfit to another include keeper Péter Gulácsi, right-backs Benno Schmitz and Bernardo, as well as key figures Marcel Sabitzer and Stefan Ilsanker. Yet among these important Salzburg imports into Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side, it is Naby Keita who is having the biggest impact on the Red Bulls climb up the Bundesliga table.
I think most Bundesliga aficionados expected RB Leipzig to cause shockwaves in their debut Bundesliga season, but I doubt many could claim to have predicted just a three-point gap between table toppers Bayern and RBL at the turn of the year.
Under Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Red Bulls stormed through the Hinrunde in their own definitive, unique playing style. Built on strong defensive foundations, combined with high intensity and measured attacks, Leipzig have oozed confidence, often bordering on arrogance. But when you’re performing as they are, it can be excused. The 4-2-2-2 that Hasenhüttl has deployed allows flexibility in defensive and attacking phases and from the defensive midfield Keita is being provided with the ideal platform to thrive.
Comparing players from league-to-league can be futile, but some have drawn comparisons between Keita and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante. With no disrespect to the marvellous Frenchman who has been among the elite in the Premier League for the past season and a half, the 21-year-old Keita is more of an all-around midfielder, offering just as much in attacking phases as he does going back from defensive midfield.
At season’s start, the idea seemed to be that of slowly introducing Keita to the side. After picking up a foot injury that ruled him out of the season opener at fellow surprise package Hoffenheim, Keita returned for the first Bundesliga game at the Red Bull Arena against Borussia Dortmund, resigned to the bench, however. Then, boy, did Keita introduce himself. The Guinean took to the field in the 84th minute; by the 89th minute, he’d scored the winner against the five-time Bundesliga winners. Since then, Naby Keita simply hasn’t looked back.
After the win over Thomas Tuchel’s men, Keita has gone on to start 11 games for Leipzig and has put in some mightily eye-catching showings. So far, the 18-time Guinea international has scored 4 goals with 2 assists in the Bundesliga. On defense, Keita averages a clean 2.4 tackles per game and a healthy 2.9 interceptions per game – only Diego Demme is averaging more in the Leipzig side.
Perhaps Keita’s most impressive attribute, however, is his simply incredible ability to carry the ball from deep. The 21-year-old is averaging 2.9 dribbles per game, a figure greater than some of Europe’s best wide men – Sadio Mane (2.5), Alexis Sanchez (2.6) and Douglas Costa (2.6) to name a few – with only Ousmane Dembele averaging more in the Bundesliga. His raw power and acceleration allows the Guinean to beat the first defender and once he is in full flow he is, and this is not hyperbolic, almost impossible to stop.
Alongside the remarkable dribbling numbers, Leipzig’s no.8 is averaging 1.2 key passes and 1.3 shots per contest. Statistics can have the effect of being misleading but for Naby Keita they only enforce the view that he is the archetypal box-to-box, do-it-all midfielder.
While he, like almost all of the Leipzig side, may have struggled to perform when the lights were shining brightest at the Allianz Arena, Keita has taken control of games for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side this term. His brace, including a wonderful solo run, powered Leipzig to victory over Werder Bremen and his all-action display was integral in the 2-1 victory over Schalke. One of the most entertaining players in the Bundesliga, the former Salzburg man is showing that he can dictate games at the highest level, still at such a tender age.
The manufacture of RasenBallsport Leipzig is much documented, most football purists veering to the side of detesting this artificial construction of a club. However, I for one find it hard to argue that those in charge in East Germany are spending the money in the wrong way. Bright young starlets, rather than aging ‘names’, are being given a fertile environment to flourish and if his first half of a season is anything to go by, Naby Keita is one of those on the road to stardom.
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