In the summer of 2017, Guinean Naby Keïta was hot property. The then RB Leipzig man was a transfer target for several elite-level European clubs; European giants such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich and Liverpool were all pursuing the midfield maestro. Eventually, Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp secured his signature in a reported £52.5 million deal. Since arriving on Merseyside, Keïta has somewhat struggled to reach the level of his RB Leipzig days due to the lack of confidence and consistency as well as a series of niggling injuries that have prevented him from staking a claim for a regular starting role in Klopp’s all-conquering Liverpool side.

In this tactical analysis, we will produce an in-depth scout report on Keïta and discover just what made him so lucrative in 2017 and provide an analysis on the areas of his game that he excels in, as well as those areas where the Guinean needs to improve if he is to live up to the hype that surrounded his name in 2017.

Passing vision

Without doubt one of Keïta’s strongest traits is his ability to see a pass – and not just see these passes but have the technical ability to execute them. If we look at the data from central-midfielders in Europe’s top five league for smart passes per 90 and deep completions per 90 – ‘A non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal’ – it becomes clear that Keïta is one of Europe’s most creative midfielders.

The scatter graph above shows us that Keïta is amongst the most creative midfielders in Europe for both smart passes per 90 and deep completions per 90 with only three players posting higher numbers in both areas. Let us look at some examples of Keïta’s passing.

The example below is taken from Liverpool’s match with Bournemouth from December 2019. Keïta receives a pass in midfield and drives forward into the opponents half before finding Salah with a brilliant pass that splits the Bournemouth defence.

As well as being brilliant at playing through balls for his team-mates, Keïta is exceptional at spotting a pass in crowded areas, as we can see in the below image from a recent match versus Aston Villa.

Keïta receives a pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold just inside Aston Villa’s penalty area and has the vision to find Sadio Mané with an inch-perfect pass that carves through Villa’s defence and leaves Mané with a simple tap-in finish.

The data suggest that Keïta is one of Europe’s most creative midfielders and with our examples, we have shown that he can make defence-splitting passes in a variety of scenarios.

Liverpool’s midfield is well-known for being one that focuses on the industrious, less creative side of football. Along with team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keïta is a welcome and sometimes necessary creative force from midfield for the 2019/20 Premier League Champions. He is capable of carving defences open and providing Liverpool’s electrifying front three with the service they require to continue their incredible scoring rate. An asset that Liverpool can call upon if their usual tactic of utilising the creativity of their full-backs is not working as they would like.

Progressive actions

Progressive actions are a key responsibility of the modern central-midfielder. The ability to drive your team forwards via a pass or a dribble is one of Keïta’s strongest areas. In the image below, we can see all the central-midfielders from Europe’s top five leagues.

Keïta scores above average in both areas and the data suggests his progressive nature is akin to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić, as well as Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul. Within the Premier League, Keïta ranks 7th for progressive runs per 90 with an average progression per 90, in metres, of 116.43 as well as 10th for progressive passes, with an average progression per 90 of 266.44m.

If we look at some examples of Keïta’s progressive nature, we can see just how important it is to his style of play.

The above image is a still from Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League match versus RB Salzburg. We see Keïta receive a pass from Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, and drive through three Salzburg players and play a pass in behind Salzburg’s defence for Mohamed Salah to run onto.

Along with Keïta’s ability to make progressive runs, he is equally as gifted in playing progressive passes. The image below shows all Keïta’s ball progressions from the 2019/20 season – up to game week 35. As we can see Keïta has played 132 progressive passes this season and has an astonishing 92.4% accuracy overall. What is particularly interesting is that Keïta is more accurate the further he passes, with 100% accuracy at the 30 metres plus distance.

The image below is once again from a recent match versus Aston Villa and we see Keïta make a progressive long pass that switches play to Mané and moves Liverpool around 20 metres towards the opponent’s goal.

Keïta’s ability and tendency to always look to progress play is of massive benefit to Liverpool. As we discovered earlier, the Guinean scores alike De Bruyne for his progressive nature and De Bruyne is widely regarded as one of the most creative midfielders of this generation.

Strength in 1v1 duels

On average a midfielder playing in one of Europe’s top five leagues will contest 7.33 defensive duels per 90, win 57.05% of those and contest 5.38 offensive duels per 90 and win 43.9%. Keïta is one of the most elite midfielders when it comes to his duels success rate.

The graph below shows both offensive and defensive duel success rate for all midfielders playing in Europe’s top five leagues. Keïta has the second-highest defensive duel success rate and is one of the leading players for offensive duel success rate.

What is it that makes him so good at winning his duels? Keïta is incredibly front-footed when defending, he utilises his ability to read the game and looks to step-in and dispossess an opponent as they look to dribble past.

Whilst on the attacking side, he looks to draw an opponent in before taking the ball away at the last possible moment and skips past his opponent. Let’s look at an example of Keïta in both defensive and offensive duels.

In the above example, we see Keïta engage in two offensive duels. What is key to note in the above example is that Keïta draws both Leicester City players in a duel before taking the ball away at the very last moment and leaving the Leicester player out of position. Keïta does this to both players before driving away and playing in Salah and leaving Liverpool in a strong 3v1 situation. Keïta’s actions in this offensive duel example are typical of his style of play. He makes the defender commit before driving past them and either continuing his run or attempting a forward pass.

On the other side of duels – the defensive side – Keïta is proactive and robust. During his time at RB Leipzig, Keïta was considered a more attacking version of Paris Saint-Germain’s Idrissa Gana Gueye due to defensive statistic similarities between the pair. We can see a good example of a different match versus Leicester.

In this example, Leicester attacking midfielder Marc Albrighton looks to dribble inside and Keïta reads his intent and moves to block his dribble and is manages to dispossess Albrighton before playing the ball into Mané, who proceeds to drive away into space. Keïta reads his opponent’s intentions and then moves to prevent them from doing so. The Guinean is proactive rather than reactive. He simply reads what his opponent wants to do before they actually commit to doing it. This knowledge and intelligence of football allow Keïta to be one step ahead of his opponent.

This high ‘football IQ’ is a trait that is no doubt appealing to Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. The German loves his midfielders to be intelligent, particularly in the defensive phase. Keïta’s natural game is one that is highly suited to Liverpool’s tactics and his high success rate both on and off the ball combined with his football IQ make him one of Europe’s best elite 1v1 midfielders.

Off the ball movements

In the last section, we briefly mentioned Keïta’s footballing intelligence. This can be hugely appreciated if we analyse his off the ball movements. Keïta frequently looks to makes run into the half-space and behind an opposition defensive line, providing an option for his team-mate in possession as well as dragging defenders away from the central area that Liverpool are trying to penetrate.

In the below image, we can see Keïta pass the ball out-wide to Andrew Robertson and immediately continue his run in behind the Bournemouth defence; by making this run Keïta gives Robertson an easy option for a pass, but he also drags two Bournemouth defenders with him – therefore freeing up space for one of the Liverpool’s narrow front three to receive in. The orange line from Robertson to Oxlade-Chamberlain indicates a pass that becomes available purely down to Keïta’s off the ball movement.

Whilst in this example Robertson opts for the follow-up pass to Keïta. It allows us to see what Keïta offers Liverpool going forwards. His forward runs from deep create problems for the opposition. Do they stay zonal marking their zone or do they track Keïta’s runs, therefore leaving a gap in the defensive shape?

Keïta is a master at this skill, his runs are always for the good of the team. Running from in-to-out and dragging defenders away from the central areas thus gifting the front three that little extra space to weave their magic.

Suitability to Liverpool’s tactics

We are all aware of Liverpool and their high intensity, gegenpressing, “heavy-metal” football as Klopp likes to call it. Arguably the biggest part of Klopp’s tactics is the high press and thanks to Keïta’s time at both RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg – both of whom adopt a high press – the Guinean is more than adept at operating within in a tactical system that adopts a high press.

The image above shows all final third recoveries made by Keïta this season. All circles on the pitch diagram are recoveries that are a result of counter-pressing, or gegenpressing, to use the German translation. The area where Keïta is most efficient with his pressing is zone 14 – the central area just outside the penalty area. Zone 14 has been subject to several scientific studies that have concluded that zone 14 is deemed ‘the golden-square’ on a football pitch. Keïta makes over 50% of his recoveries in this area, mainly through anticipation and smart positioning and intelligent pressing he can catch the opposition off-guard where he is able to capitalise upon. Below we have a few examples.

Our first example is from Liverpool’s match versus Leicester. Keïta reads play and anticipates the short pass to Youri Tielemans, and presses with intent, catching the Belgian off-guard and regains possession for Liverpool just inside that crucial zone 14.

Another example can be seen from the match versus Brighton and Hove Albion. Liverpool are in a typical high press formation, with right-winger Salah anticipating the pass to one centre-back and left-winger Oxlade-Chamberlain marks the other Brighton centre-back. Firmino moves across to block the passing lane into one the central-midfielders and this leaves Keïta with the task of marking Davy Pröpper.

Keïta holds his press on Pröpper long enough to encourage Mat Ryan into passing to Pröpper, as Ryan initiates the pass, Keïta pounces and pressures the Brighton midfielder into losing possession on the edge of his own area – zone 14 again – leaving Keïta with a simple square pass to Salah who is able to pass the ball into the Brighton net, giving Liverpool an early lead.

Keïta’s ability to recognise the triggers of when and where to press an opponent, along with his expansive knowledge and years of experience of similar systems are a clear advantage to Klopp and Liverpool. The Guinean slots into the German’s high-intensity system seamlessly. The issue being how often Keïta is match-fit to feature in Klopp’s plans.

What the future holds, what improvements are needed? – conclusion

There is no question about it, Naby Keïta has all the attributes and skillset to be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in world football, he has shown glimpses of the world-class talent he possesses on occasion but he has most definitely struggled for confidence, and fitness, during his time on Merseyside, and this has affected his performances.

If we look back at certain metrics that may be linked to box-to-box midfielders, we can see that Keïta has not reproduced the outstanding figures he was posting during his spell with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

The image above shows key per 90 metrics typically associated with box-to-box midfielders. Keïta has remained consistent in these key metrics for the last four seasons, with only a slight drop in his interceptions and offensive duels won since joining Liverpool. Why then have we not seen the all-action dynamism that made Keïta one of the most sought-after players a few years ago? Injuries.

The dynamic midfielder has had eight separate injuries since joining Liverpool in the 2018/19 season. These eight injuries had made him unavailable for 28 matches, preventing him from building up a run of games and staking his claim to be a regular starter in Klopp’s dominant Liverpool side. From the 2015/16 until the year he joined Liverpool he had missed just 12.

The above image shows just how much football Keïta has missed since signing for Liverpool. In his first season at Liverpool (2018/19), he played just 40% of the potential minutes. Of course, we must factor in that Keïta was acclimatising to a new country, language, league, and team as well as Klopp’s midfield rotation to keep his team fresh. His 2019/20 season though could be cleared of all those. Yes, he may have been severely unlucky with the number of injuries he has picked up this year and his injuries have seemed to come at a time when he was just starting to show small flashes of the potential superstar he could be.

Since the restart after the Covid-19 pandemic, Keïta has been a much more regular starter and has racked up the fourth-most minutes of Liverpool’s midfield – after the usual three of Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum. The Guinean has repaid Klopp with some stellar performances. He was arguably Liverpool’s best player in the Everton, Aston Villa and Brighton matches. With captain Henderson out for the last three games of the season due to a knee injury. Keïta will surely be knocking on Klopp’s door asking for as many minutes as possible in an attempt to force his way into the starting 11 and to start showing England, Europe and the world why he is one of the most dynamic, creative and exciting midfielders in football at present.