AS with the appearance of Christmas pap in the shops in August, and Easter Eggs in January, the start of transfer rumour silly season seems to get earlier and earlier each year. It’s not even May yet and already people seem fairly certain they’ve got Jürgen Klopp’s entire summer shopping list locked down. It’s only right therefore to go through said list with a fine-tooth comb, trying to find rhyme and reason behind the names that could be making their way to Anfield in the near future.
You may have heard, but rumour has it that some boss lad called Naby Keita is one of the names near the very top of that list, as reported several months ago by Goal.com’s Melissa Reddy and recently verified by several other well-connected journalists.
As the only Anfield Wrap contributor whose life is curiously free enough to fit in several hours of Bundesliga watching a week (give me Hertha Berlin v Wolfsburg over Line of Duty any day) I’ve been asked to tell you why you should be crossing your legs with excitement about the possible procurement of the 22-year-old, leading to unrepentant throwing of dead pigeons at car windows if he doesn’t wear the Liverbird upon his chest next season.
You may be familiar with the story of RB Leipzig, but if not, here’s a quick summary. A tiny German club were taken over by serial sport team purchasers Red Bull, who proceeded to give them wings and spend their way to the Bundesliga.
The club were a fifth division club called SSV Markranstädt until the 2009 takeover, and were plunged into a new identity by the drinks manufacturer. They joined Salzburg and New York as part of the Red Bull football family, and quickly started making their way to the top.
Some have compared their rise to a charge at Bayern Munich’s title dominance as the Bundesliga’s answer to Leicester City. However, such comparisons will have German footy fans throwing stale pretzels at you in disgust (or something slightly less clichéd).
The view on the rail-seating terraces, and presumably in the regular seats too, is that they have bought their way to success, as well as finding ‘iffy’ ways around Germany’s 50+1 ownership rule. They are seen as going against many of the traditions of German football, which clearly means a lot as you have to have pissed people off royally if they want Bayern Munich to beat you.
That is to take nothing away from the players who have got them there, though. Whatever people think about the ethics of the club, their squad isn’t exactly made up of world-renowned superstars like Bayern. Their style of football is also familiar to those of us who have gotten used to watching a Klopp team for the past 18 months, which is hardly surprising given that Ralf Rangnick is the Director of Football. If anything, it’s reminiscent of old-school Mainz/early Dortmund Klopp (before teams started parking their proverbial buses at him like a fat kid hogging a slide).
Their fast attacking style and relative solidity at the back has been attractive and exciting to watch and has been executed by young stars of the future such as Emil Forsberg, Timo Werner and former Liverpool keeper Peter Gulacsi. They even have a fella called Poulsen, and he’s not completely useless like our one was.
However, among all of the impressive new young players making a name for themselves at RasenBallsport Leipzig (for legal reasons that’s what they say the ‘RB’ stands for) is a dynamic midfielder who fits their system like Sir Patrick Stewart fits voiceover work.
Naby Keita has shone at the club owned by the energy drink company. In fact you could say he’s ‘Relentless’, or plays like a ‘Monster’, and that if he joins Liverpool he could potentially be used as a ‘Lucas-aid’. Okay, that’ll do.
So why would Klopp want to add Keita to an already decent amount of central midfielders? He has Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana to play in the middle, while youngsters such as Marko Grujic and Ovie Ejaria will surely be knocking on the door next season.
Well, put simply, to upgrade.
I’m a big fan of Liverpool’s midfield when it’s on song, but a mixture of getting injured a lot and failing to put a run of consistently good performances together means Klopp has to look at it as an area to strengthen. Midfield is possibly where the biggest difference can be made to a team with a subtle swap in personnel, just ask Leicester and Chelsea and the new PFA Player of the Year.
Yes, I’ve already done it. I’ve made the comparison to N’Golo Kante. Well frankly, no, he’s not another Kante as some have suggested, but one of his key strengths is winning possession back. He may not tackle as often as the Frenchman (then again, who does?) but he does average more interceptions, and when he does win the ball back he is more than capable of carrying it upfield at pace and playing an incisive ball into an attacking player or attempting a shot himself.
To take the coward’s way out of analysis, the best way I can sum Keita up is that he’s an ‘all-rounder’. He’s just as good at the defensive work as the attacking work.
One slight issue I’m sure people will have is that he stands at around 5ft 7in, but as long as you mostly keep the ball under that height, he’ll have it, and he’ll do things with it. His low centre of gravity allows him to dribble at pace while retaining full control of the ball.
Keita’s story is like Kante’s in another way. The current Chelsea midfielder was a little known gem at lowly Caen in the French league before Leicester took the plunge to sign him, but he had still been scouted by the big boys. Keita was coming off a breakthrough season at, funnily enough, Red Bull Salzburg, where he was named the Austrian league’s player of the year. There had been links with bigger teams, and in one final comparison to Kante, Keita admitted in an interview that Arsenal had tried to sign him, but he decided he wanted to remain loyal to Rangnick, who had taken him to Salzburg, and instead moved to East Germany’s only Bundesliga side.
Want another drawback? He plays for Guinea, which means there’s a chance that he’ll join Sadio Mane in missing six weeks of every other season at the African Cup of Nations. However, given how much time most of Liverpool’s players spend out injured anyway, missing six weeks in every 80 or so isn’t really worth not signing such a fantastic talent. Besides, Guinea failed to qualify for this year’s tournament, so you never know.
“But who is he an upgrade on in this Liverpool team?” I hear you cry. Well, and this may be controversial, but given that when fit you assume Henderson and Lallana come back in for Lucas and Can, them I’m afraid Keita is the one to replace none other than Wijnaldum.
I know, sacrilege to some, but while the Dutchman with the warmest smile in all the land has put in some terrific performances this season, there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s also put in some distinctly average ones (as has everyone in fairness).
That’s not to say that Keita would be brought to play every week and ‘The Wij’ would have to settle for run-outs in the League Cup, but Klopp needs to add competition for places that could and should lead to players upping their game. Wijnaldum will feel under more pressure to show what he can do, and the added threat of Keita taking his place might be what eliminates, or at least reduces, his inconsistency.
I’d also look into the possibility of playing him in a two with Henderson, Can or indeed Wijnaldum, mainly as I think a switch to 4-2-3-1 is the way forward for this team, but his hybrid nature means he’d be a flexible option for numerous scenarios.
It’s a lot to ask of Keita to improve on what we have, especially given he’s only recently turned 22, but it is no exaggeration to say that, in spite of their immense dislike of his club, there are plenty of Bundesliga watchers who will tell you that Keita hasn’t just been Leipzig’s best player this season, but the league’s best. We won’t find out until June whether it is official though, because the eminently sensible Germans pick the best player of the season at the end of the season. Imagine that.
No player profile would be complete without statistics that may or may not actually mean anything, so here goes.
According to WhoScored.com, in 27 league appearances this season Keita has hit eight goals and grabbed seven assists, which isn’t bad when he’s played a lot of his games from a deep position. He has a pass success rate of 80.4 per cent, wins just 0.6 aerial duels per game (I did say he is small), makes 2.3 tackles per game, 2.6 interceptions and 2.8 dribbles. Compare this with Wijnaldum, who in 32 league games has five goals and six assists, has an 87.2 per cent pass success rate (albeit in a team that is much more focused on possession football), wins one aerial duel per game, makes 1.3 tackles, 0.8 interceptions and 0.8 dribbles.
There’s nothing to guarantee that Keita’s game would translate seamlessly to England and allow those numbers to stay that high, but he’s showing incredible ability in a top league at just 22 and you’d fancy that working under Klopp would only improve him further.
Bundesliga’s legal team are very hot on stopping their coverage from being used without their permission, so the only proper compilation you’re likely to find is this official Bundesliga YouTube video that showcases his goals and assists from this season (up until February, he’s scored even more since).
Now for the come down. I was as excited as anyone about the noises coming out of the club last week that they’ll go big in the summer for players to improve the starting 11, and that for me is what Keita would do. Having said that, the increasing uncertainty about whether the Reds will have Champions League football to offer potentially throws those plans into a certain amount of doubt.
If we secure top four, Rangnick’s respect for Klopp could possibly see him advise Keita to join his former Bundesliga.2 foe, if the midfielder insists on leaving Leipzig for a fee reportedly likely to be between £25-30m, as will the money on offer to the player and the fact that he and Sadio Mane share the same agent.
Then again, if the worst happens and the Reds miss out on Champions League football, you’d have to say signings of the calibre of Keita would be somewhat unlikely given the almost certain competition from teams who can offer him such things.
As with anyone even remotely good in Germany, Keita is also being heavily linked with a move to Bayern Munich. Having said that, perhaps Keita would take a look at how someone like Renato Sanches has fared at the Allianz Arena since his big money move from Benfica last summer and think twice about continuing his development there.
It must also be noted that there is a theme in Germany of big deals between Bundesliga clubs being tied up before the end of the season, as Bayern have done recently by purchasing Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy from Hoffenheim, while Dortmund have already secured a deal for famously non-Liverpool player Mahmoud Dahoud. You would hope that if Bayern were truly interested in Keita, they’d have already publicly started negotiations by now.
There is also the argument that he’ll just stay at RB Leipzig seeing as they’re going to be in the Champions League next season. Well, not necessarily. UEFA rules state that owners of more than one club cannot have more than one of those clubs in European competition at the same time, meaning there is a chance that Red Bull will have to choose between Leipzig and Salzburg, and for some reason, early indications are that they’ll favour their first love from Austria.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’ll happen. In a ‘Luke-Wilson-in-Anchorman-guessing-the-sex-of-the-new-born-panda’ kind of way, I’d say if we do qualify for the Champions League, we’ll get him.
Then again, it could all be Red Bullshit.