With Liverpool pursuing RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita this summer, Jurgen Klopp may have struck upon the ideal solution in the middle.
Keita emerged as a possible target for the Reds at the beginning of March, with Klopp clearly looking to bolster his midfield ranks ahead of the 2017/18 campaign.
Indeed, the player himself though confirmed such interest last October, saying: “Arsenal, and Man City…were interested in signing me and Liverpool as well.”
Liverpool are likely to be playing in either the Champions League or the Europa League next season, and their efforts on four fronts will require a bigger and stronger squad.
Klopp already has Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can as regular fixtures in midfield, with Lucas Leiva, Kevin Stewart, Marko Grujic and Ovie Ejaria also available.
But the addition of a talent like Keita could see Liverpool’s options improved significantly, with the 22-year-old one of the best young players in the Bundesliga this season.
And if Klopp is able to convince the Guinean to make the move to Merseyside, he could stabilise his midfield for years to come.
Born in Conakry, Guinea in 1995, Kieta has followed an arduous path to the top of the Bundesliga, with the midfielder not playing top-flight football until 2014.
He began his career with local side Horoya AC, before his 10th birthday, spending seven years on the books at the Stade 28 Septembre before seeking opportunities abroad, moving to France to live with compatriot Guy-Michel Landel.
But after trials with both FC Lorient and Le Mans, Keita remained without a club for two years, only linking up with Ligue 2 outfit FC Istres midway through the 2013/14 campaign.
Quickly impressing in Fos-sur-Mer, Keita was snapped up by Austrian heavyweights Red Bull Salzburg in 2014, in a deal worth around £1.25 million, joining the same summer Sadio Mane departed for Southampton.
At Salzburg, he linked up with former Liverpool goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, as well as soon-to-be Klopp signing Kevin Kampl, who left to join Borussia Dortmund during the winter transfer window.
During his time with Salzburg, Keita made 81 appearances, scoring 20 goals and assisting 11 as his side won back-to-back Austrian Bundesliga titles despite playing under four different managers.
Keita moved to Leipzig, Salzburg’s sister-club, after two seasons, with this spell in Austria giving the midfielder a great grounding due to the two sides’ deliberately similar tactical outlooks.
“I was welcomed with open arms and I felt good straight away. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s fun. I love our attacking style of play,” he said shortly after his arrival in Saxony.
“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.
Keita was certainly right, with the 22-year-old now part of a title-challenging side, and his performances have been one of the key factors behind Ralph Hasenhuttl’s unexpected success.
Strengths, Weaknesses & Style of Play
Red Bull have unearthed a modern gem in Keita, with the youngster a genuine all-rounder in midfield, able to operate in a variety of roles—and he often does over the course of 90 minutes.
He typically lines up in a deep-lying midfield duo in Hasenhuttl’s unorthodox 4-4-2 formation, but his energy and versatility provide him the freedom of the pitch.
“I play in front of the defence and I love touching the ball as often as possible,” Keita explained in December.
“In Leipzig, I really enjoy this. I feel good and I like attacking at speed, and if I get the slightest chance I try to score.”
As is required in his natural role, Keita is a strong defensive presence, with the Guinean possessing an intelligent perception of the game, averaging three successful tackles and 3.1 interceptions per 90 in the Bundesliga.
He pairs this with a confidence in possession, ensuring he is a constant outlet for his team-mates, willing to play swift one-twos and, crucially, push the ball forward whenever possible.
Only five central midfielders have averaged more key passes per 90 in the German top flight this season (1.8), while only Mane (1.9), Roberto Firmino (2.1) and Philippe Coutinho (2.8) have for Liverpool.
Keita also averages 3.7 successful dribbles per 90, with a useful measure of his speed and excellent close control coming in comparison with Tottenham‘s Mousa Dembele (3.5).
This allows him to drive forward and support attacks, with his off-ball equally impressive, helping him to score four goals in 22 games for Leipzig already this season, including against Dortmund on his Bundesliga debut, with eight assists to his name, too.
Given his role and his diminutive stature, standing at 5’7″, it would be easy to compare Keita to N’Golo Kante, but he is a completely different player, whose role model is Andres Iniesta.
However, while Kante performs with maturity and composure, with his game intelligence fuelling the Blues’ title charge, Keita can be guilty over being overeager in midfield, in one of few flaws.
Furthermore, given his height, he is not the typical Klopp central midfielder, but this all depends on what role the German envisages him playing in.
Where Keita Would Fit in at Liverpool
Having overseen a failed title charge in 2016/17, and planning for European football next season, Klopp will need to bolster his squad both in terms of quality and quantity this summer.
The German is likely to call upon Henderson, Lallana, Wijnaldum, Can, Grujic and Ejaria in 2017/18, as he tailors his options to suit Liverpool’s established midfield setup.
Keita would certainly be able to slot into Klopp’s current system, as he explained of Leipzig’s approach back in December.
“We play a modern game based on speed and technique. Every time we lose the ball we press our opponents hard to recover it as soon as possible,” he said.
“We are difficult to play against and our main quality is that the danger can come from anywhere.”
Given his all-around quality, it could be that Keita has been earmarked to operate in a similar box-to-box role to Wijnaldum, or even Lallana, boasting the same control, dribbling ability and confidence in possession.
But in reality, the Guinean could suit any role in Klopp’s midfield, such is his versatility, and he could even take up a position as Liverpool’s new No. 6.
Keita is a tactically flexible, high-potential young midfielder on course to reach elite level, and while it may be a struggle to fend off their competitors this summer, he should be considered a must-buy for Liverpool.