In April I wrote a piece here on ESDF about N’Golo Kante. I looked at how Kante, a box-to-box player, gets wrongly typecast as an out-and-out defensive midfielder due to comparisons with Claude Makelele. Well questionable comparisons are back and this time Kante is on the other end of it with Naby Keita our focus player.
Keita is small, energetic and normally plays in a deep, two-man midfield, so the comparison isn’t entirely baseless. Keita has similarly impressive defensive statistics to Kante – 2.6 tackles and another 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes in the 16/17 Bundesliga (WhoScored). Those may be inflated a little by RB Leipzig’s ultra-proactive style in defence. But it’s a style that is typified by Naby himself.
We can see where the Kante comparison may be coming from but Leipzig’s number 8 is also an elite dribbler and immense attacking force. Drawing the opposition press towards him before breaking it, surging through an entire midfield and, often, threading a weighted through-ball into the path of a sprinting team mate.
In the final third Keita is himself a goal threat from short and long range, intelligent in his off the ball movement and able to receive and operate the ball in tight spaces to create chances. Again, through-balls are a favourite.
Keita is at home anywhere in midfield. His versatility is such that he could probably play any role on the pitch other than in goal or at centre-back – his lack of height is his only real weakness. Rather than the John O’Shea, Phil Neville, James Milner, Catch 22; the Guinean is not a “jack of all trades, master of none” but the master of all.
More impressively still, he is mastering those contributions simultaneously. Naby’s true potency comes in the form of combining stealing the ball with progressing it up the pitch, or combining progressions from deep with goals and assists.
Leipzig’s director of football Ralf Rangnick has dismissed rumours linking Keita to Liverpool or anywhere else on the basis that the club are not interested in selling. Despite preventative Bundesliga rules Leipzig are essentially owned by multinational conglomerate Red Bull. As such there is no shortage of funds and little reason to sell off one of their biggest assets, even at an inflated fee.
Securing their first ever Champion’s League season may be enough to keep the 22 year old happy at the club for the time being but talent such as his can only be kept from the elite clubs for so long. Naby is already close behind the best central midfielders in the game and it won’t be too long before he is globally regarded as such.