The Anfield-bound Naby Keita was outstanding for RB Leipzig last season but his form and discipline have come under scrutiny after three red cards in his last 10 appearances for club and country. So what’s going on? And should Liverpool be worried?
It has been an eventful few months for Naby Keita. A summer of intense transfer speculation was interrupted by the dangerous tackle on RB Leipzig team-mate Diego Demme which caused a training session to be abandoned in July, and there has been more drama both on and off the pitch since his club-record move to Liverpool was finally confirmed at the end of August.
Red cards against Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayern Munich came either side of another sending off during an international appearance for Guinea, and last week German authorities hit him with a six-figure fine for allegedly using a forged driving licence. From quietly inspiring RB Leipzig’s unexpected success last season, Keita is now attracting headlines for the wrong reasons.
There have been highlights amid the controversy – most notably his stunning long-range goal against Hamburg in September – but according to Ronald Tenbusch, a football journalist who covers RB Leipzig for the newspaper Die Welt, the general consensus in Germany is that Keita’s performances have dipped from the heights of last season.
“So far this season everyone here feels that Naby has performed on a slightly lower level,” Tenbusch tells Sky Sports. “Most likely it is because expectations have become bigger after his outstanding breakthrough season. But people have also had the feeling, especially in the early weeks of the season, that his upcoming move to Liverpool has influenced his performances.”
Keita’s red cards
RB Leipzig v Borussia Monchengladbach, September 16: A straight red card for a dangerous high boot on Gladbach’s Chrisoph Kramer in the 83rd minute.
Guinea v Tunisia, October 7: Another straight red card, this time for raising an arm to the face of Tunisia player Ben Amor in injury time.
RB Leipzig v Bayern Munich, October 25: Two bookings, the first for a lunge on Thiago Alcantara before half-time, the second for pulling back Robert Lewandowski after the break.
Keita could be forgiven for feeling a little distracted. It has, after all, been an extraordinary rise for a player who only turned professional with French minnows FC Istres four years ago. What is a little more troubling, however, is that the midfielder’s recent disciplinary problems could easily have been even worse.
Keita has already received five yellow cards in addition to his reds – only three fewer than in the whole of last season – with head coach Ralph Hasenhuttl forced to substitute him early during RB Leipzig’s recent meetings with Besiktas and Borussia Dortmund. Hasenhuttl insisted Keita had “learned his lesson” last month, but the problems have persisted.
It points to a lack of focus, but are there other factors at play? Keita was a relative unknown when he arrived in the Bundesliga from Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg last summer, but these days he is a marked man. “He’s now a player who others try to provoke,” said Hasenhuttl last month. “He’s on the receiving end a lot,” added team-mate Yussuf Poulsen.
The statistics prove it. Keita’s reputation follows him everywhere and so too do opposition defenders. In fact, Keita has been one of the Bundesliga’s most fouled players this season. The 22-year-old is being fouled 3.1 times per 90 minutes compared to 1.9 times per 90 minutes in 2016/17. He is being dispossessed more frequently too.
It has proved frustrating for Keita, who, Tenbusch says, is also having to throw himself into more challenges. “He is involved in more duels than last season. So on one hand, opponents are more aggressive towards him. But on the other, his game has changed. Why? Because RB is pressing a little bit less this season, so Naby has to compete in more duels to win possession in midfield.”
It’s borne out in the numbers. Keita has gone from competing in 18.1 duels per 90 minutes last season to 25.7 per 90 minutes in the new campaign. And with his tackles also on the up, Keita now finds himself in more situations where a simple misjudgement can prompt a referee to reach for his cards.
But should Liverpool really be worried? “I don’t think he has problems with discipline,” says Tenbusch. “The only thing I have recognised is that he has changed his style a bit, he is wearing more extravagant clothes, but he is certainly not a diva.”
Those who know Keita best are similarly unconcerned. “Naby is easy-going,” said Ralf Rangnick, the RB Leipzig sporting director who oversaw his transfer to Red Bull Salzburg two years before taking him to Germany. “It’s hard not to get on well with him. Naby trains well, plays well, and is always on time. He’s popular in the team.”
Frederic Arpinon, the former FC Istres sporting director who gave Keita his chance in France, described him as a “great character” in conversation with Sky Sports in July, while Hasenhuttl has conveyed the same kind of message. “This is nothing that worries me,” he said recently.
It is only natural for Keita’s temperament to be questioned in light of his recent misdemeanours, but rather than being a cause for concern, his attitude – all humility and determination – is clearly a strength. Keita’s disciplinary issues are those of a young player adapting to new circumstances. The under-the-radar star has become the centre of attention. It’s not an easy transition.
“Of course he needs to learn how to handle aggressive opponents but I don’t think he has a problem controlling his emotions,” says Tenbusch. “He is not like Franck Ribery, who reacts with physical assaults when someone provokes him. From my point of view, Naby just needs to find the right balance in his style of play.”
There have been signs that he is beginning do just that. Keita has not been shown a card in any of his last three appearances, and against Hannover last weekend his eye-catching display from the bench helped RB Leipzig overturn a one-goal deficit to win 2-1. For all the unwanted attention on the pitch, he is in fact creating more scoring chances and completing more dribbles than last season.
It’s good news for RB Leipzig as they chase Bundesliga and Champions League success, and it’s encouraging for his next club too. “He is looking more and more like the dominant central midfielder we used to know,” says Tenbusch. Keita is still young and still learning, but Liverpool can look forward to getting to know him too.