The Quiet Man
Naby Keita’s journey from Guinea through France, Austria and Germany to Liverpool
On his first day at Anfield, Naby Keita was handed the No 8 jersey by his predecessor Steven Gerrard in a pleasant but unusual ritual. It marked a watershed moment for the man from Guinea, while simultaneously illustrating the expectation that had fallen upon him. As a child, he had worn the famous red shirt in the streets of Koleya and pretended to be the now Rangers boss, but here he was required to emulate him on a much larger scale.
Keita started his journey at local side Horoya Athlétique Club, in the Guinean capital Conakry. He lived with his brother Amadeus, mother Mariam and father Sekou, who nicknamed the child ‘Deco’ because of his creative football talent. At 16, he made the trip to Europe for the first time, when he had a trial with the French club Lorient. Les Merlus had been advised by the Guinea national team’s all-time top scorer Pascal Feindouno, who played on loan for the club in the 2001-02 campaign, scoring six goals and winning the Coupe de France. Keita was dismissed for a lack of tactical awareness and basic understanding of common football vocabulary.
The midfielder would get another opportunity some time later with Le Mans, but the club’s precarious financial position meant that they were unable to sign him on a permanent basis. He was watched by Istres for the first time in a tournament that was organised by the former Guinea international and Celtic defender Bobo Baldé, who was born in Marseille. Frédéric Arpinon, the sporting director of Istres at the time, recalls how Keita arrived at the club: “One day a friend called me and said, ‘Fred, I know a guy called Naby Keita from Guinea and he is a fantastic player. Fred, you need to take him.’ I had a lot of confidence in my friend; I said to him, ‘Naby can come to Istres.’”
The commune in southern France has a population of just over 43,000, with a Mediterranean climate and sandy beaches. “Istres was a very small club in the French second division,” their former defender Vincent Le Goff said. “It’s near Marseilles, it was a very nice place to live, but it was a such a small town.”
There were initial issues with Keita’s paperwork and it took three weeks before he was able to sign a contract. In that period, he was only able to train with his new teammates. “He came in the September or October,” said Le Goff. “As early as the second training session you could see that he was some player. He had very good technique and he instantly made a huge impression.” Arpinon, now head of youth scouting at FC Metz, added: “He played 20 minutes and I said, ‘Stop!’ He was training with the first team and you could see that he was a different player.”
Le Goff was educated at the renowned Nantes academy and believes Keita’s natural talent was honed playing in bare feet on the dirt roads of his home nation. “I don’t really know why he was not picked up by a famous academy like Nantes or Lyon because he was a player who should have been signed by one of these clubs. Istres had a very good scouting department at finding young talent, but it’s still a mystery to me as why Naby didn’t get taken to a bigger club.”
Although only 18, Keita was already popular with the squad because of his friendly but reserved demeanour. His teammates were delighted when he finally signed his contract because his ability was obvious. He was ready for his Ligue 2 debut despite not even having played in a friendly. “I remember he played against Nîmes, he was fantastic and scored,” said Arpinon, as Istres won 4-2, Geoffrey Malfleury getting a hat-trick.
Even though he was just beginning his professional career, his potential attracted the attention of other clubs almost immediately. “We scouted him for the first time in November 2013,” said the former FC Salzburg CEO Jochen Sauer. “He had just started and was making his first appearances for Istres, then it was a process of watching him with our scouting department until March. Then in April and May we focused on him a bit more.”
The coach José Pasqualetti fielded Keita in a 4-3-3 system before switching to a midfield diamond after the winter break. The Istres captain Jérôme Leroy would feature alongside him and became something of a mentor for Keita. The attacking midfielder had made more than 100 appearances and scored 10 goals for Paris Saint-Germain in his prime. He left the Parisians at 29 and had spells with Guingamp, Lens, Beitar Jerusalem and Sochaux before a four-year tenure with Stade Rennes. It was here that he was labelled ‘Leroy de la passe’. He may have been 38 and in the twilight of his career when he joined Istres, but his experience and professionalism stood out for an aspiring and impressionable midfielder.
“He was a very good player, with very good technique,” said Le Goff. “I think he may have influenced Naby on the tactical side because he was quite raw. He wasn’t used to professional football. He would just run towards the goal, but Jérôme helped him understand that you have to use the tempo to slow down the game at some point and when to attack.”
Just one win in the last 13 league games saw Istres relegated to the third tier and they began to struggle financially. Keita still had the fourth-highest number of assists in the division and contributed four goals, even though he had only started playing three months into the season.
“On the pitch, he had very good technique,” remembers Arpinon. “When he touched the ball, it was like [Andrés] Iniesta. When he lost the ball, he always tried to win it back. A lot of people compare Naby to N’Golo Kanté. Naby can win the ball like Kanté, but he is different. He is like Iniesta, where he makes the assist.”
Le Goff was equally impressed: “His technique was impressive. The ball always stuck to his feet. He could do anything. At the end of the season, I talked to Fred and I already knew that he was going to sign for better clubs. It was obvious to me that he was going to have a great career because he was such a talent and I had no doubt that he would make it. I couldn’t say for sure that one day he would play for Liverpool, but I certainly thought that he would definitely play Champions League football in his career.”
Benoît Thans was amongst the first from the Red Bull scouting department to assess Keita, as Salzburg targeted the French second division. The former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier was also a major influence in the club’s transfer strategy at this time in his role as Global Sports Director for the Red Bull corporation. His knowledge of the market and contacts opened up a number of doors and a clear pathway was created.
“For Salzburg, due to the country and the league situation, there aren’t many options for top teams to develop players for the highest level,” said Sauer, who now works as Academy Manager for Bayern Munich. “We were always looking abroad. France was always an interesting market for Salzburg because it’s one of the big European football markets but not as huge as the big four football countries. We knew that this is one of the countries [from which it] could be realistic to convince a player to come to Austria.
“We had one advantage for this market that Gérard Houllier was the Sporting Director on the global side of Red Bull. His inside knowledge of France was good for us and made it easier for us to get enough information on players in addition to our scouting system. We focused on the second-division players in France because we knew that Ligue 1 weren’t really focusing too much on them. From a financial point of view, they were realistic to get.
“We played against Angers and I was sitting next to Houllier in the stand. He spoke to me throughout the game about the quality of Naby. I was thinking before the game that he didn’t know Naby, but he told me after the game that he was a different player and that he wanted to sign him.”
Keita had only played first-team football for a couple of months, but his raw potential was enough to convince Salzburg that he had a bright future. The additional information obtained by Houllier enabled the club to act before other sides. Another coach at the club was Peter Zeidler, who managed Salzburg’s reserve team FC Liefering. He spoke fluent French and also knew the French market well. Salzburg signed him in July 2014.
It was at Salzburg that Keita formed a close friendship with Sadio Mané, as the two travelled home together after training. They may have only shared a dressing room for two and a half months, with Mané leaving for Southampton, but a bond grew between them.
The Senegalese winger had been a huge influence before they had even met. “For Naby, and then for other French players like Dayot Upamecano, it was very helpful that we could show them the great development of Sadio Mané on paper and in reality,” said Sauer. “At that time, we already had some interesting offers for Sadio from Germany and also from England. We said, ‘Look, this is what you can do as well, coming from the second division in France!’ Sadio Mané was at FC Metz when we signed him.
“We showed him the route that Sadio took and this was the best way to convince him to make the next step to Austria. He knew that there was another player [of similar background] in the team in Sadio, the second coach speaking French, along with a mentor like Gérard Houllier to help him with the integration. Those arguments helped convince him to come to Salzburg.”
There were also similarities in the two players’ ability to dribble. “Naby didn’t have the same speed,” said Sauer, “but with the ball he had great technique, the vision to see everything around him and to make the first movement in the right direction most of the time, taking the corrects decision when it came to passing the ball and dribbling. He was very special when we scouted him. If he could get to the same athletic level that we needed at Salzburg or Red Bull, then we knew that he could be a top player in Europe.”
Keita had to adapt to a new country and club once again. “He is a very calm person,” said Sauer. “At the beginning he was very shy, but he also developed a lot as a person. He is still a player who is very calm and doesn’t talk too much. This is his character, and this is OK. It wasn’t easy for him to learn the German language, so this took a little longer because of his calm character.”
Valon Berisha was another midfielder at the club. “He was a calm kind of guy,” he said. “At that time, he didn’t speak much German, so it was hard to have a conversation because he always needed a translator. He is a really good and level guy, very quiet.”
On the border with Bavaria, Salzburg is small and quiet but steeped in history. Keita lived in an apartment with his brother and cousin.
The coach Adi Hütter left him out of the 6-1 opening-day win over Rapid Vienna, but he came on as a half-time substitute in the following 5-0 victory against Wiener Neustadt. Salzburg went down to ten men five minutes before the break, when Mané received his second yellow card of the game. That performance was enough to persuade Hütter, now manager of Eintracht Frankfurt, to give Keita his first start four days later in the Champions League qualifier against Qarabag FK.
“In his first weeks, he started to train with the first team, and you could see that it was a bit too fast for him,” says Sauer. Keita was substituted after 38 minutes, when Christian Schwegler was sent off and Salzburg needed a replacement defender. He played just the last 14 minutes of the second leg, as he struggled with the step up in pace.
In the Austrian Bundesliga though, it was a different story. Hütter used Keita as a holding midfielder, keeping the game as simple as possible to try gradually to increase his confidence. “The early impressions of him were that you could see the potential,” said Berisha, “but he was not that dominant right away. He was more of a No 6 who worked really hard to win the ball and the technical side of him just grew.”
“His development over the first few weeks was impressive,” said Sauer, “and starting with the Europa League group stage he became one of the most important players in the team across the whole season.”
The system and style at FC Salzburg were very different from anything that Keita had previously experienced, as they pressed in a cohesive and organised manner. “You could see that his technique with a football was outstanding and that he saw everything that was around him,” said Sauer. “He understood the game and how to take the right decisions. We knew that there was some work [to be done] on the tactical side especially with the pressing football that we played at Red Bull.
“We knew that this was something that he had to learn – to get the athletic ability to play in central midfield, as a box-to-box player, to be able to sprint and run at a high intensity, but we knew that he was a very intelligent football player and that he would learn it quickly.”
Berisha had ruptured his cruciate ligaments in June 2014 and it wasn’t until the following January that he was available for selection. The two players began to feature alongside each other more as the season drew to a close and Salzburg successfully defended their league title. “We connected really well,” said Berisha. “We play the same kind of football. We played really fast and kept the ball really well. It was a pleasure playing with him and learning from him also. He was unbelievable and developed really fast.”
Ralf Rangnick was in his final season as sporting director at FC Salzburg before he moved to concentrate on RB Leipzig on a full-time basis. The theorist was equally impressed with Keita’s ability to move and dribble the ball with such ease. He had just turned 20, but Rangnick was surprised how he passed and won back possession.
It was in his second season, though, that Keita went to the next level. Salzburg had three managers that year with Peter Zeidler, a former assistant to Rangnick at Hoffenheim, promoted to the first team to take control for the first six months. Thomas Letsch, who had been coach of Liefering, was also given a brief spell in charge before the former Barcelona player and Watford manager Oscar García stepped in to lead them to their ninth league title.
Keita played in a more advanced position than in his first season. “He was a mix between a No 8 and a No 10,” said Sauer. “He developed as a player who was very important winning the ball and going into duels to get the ball back from the opponent but we could see that he was also able to score goals and make the last pass.”
Keita scored seven goals in Salzburg’s first 16 league games of the season. “When he developed in the next two years, he took more responsibility with the ball and started to create chances and goals,” said Berisha. “It was the moment that you knew that he was going to go to a big club.”
That maturation appeared to happen very quickly and he was voted player of the season. “This was an outstanding season for him,” Sauer said, “and the team as a whole. In most of the matches he was the outstanding player on the pitch; he scored, made assists and he decided a lot of matches on his own. He was dribbling from midfield and beating two, three, four or even five players before scoring.”
The natural winner seemed to transform on the pitch. A defeat in a Champions League qualifier to Malmö was pivotal. Guarded and reclusive in everyday life, he became aggressive and exerted a desire that occasionally overstepped the mark. “He changes on the pitch; he always wants to win,” said Sauer. “After the negative experience of going out against Malmö and not playing very well, you could see that he was very angry with himself and that he hated to lose matches. He always wants to win and he sometimes gets emotional on the pitch if there is a chance of losing the match.”
Keita had adapted to a more intense type of football. His athleticism and tactical understanding of the game had been enhanced and he was ready to make the next step. So, did Salzburg’s relationship with RB Leipzig mean that he was always destined to move to Germany? “No!” Sauer insists. “There was no discussion about Leipzig. They were just coming from the third to the second division. We told him that if he performed well for Salzburg for one or two years, the chance was very high to move forward to the Bundesliga, Premier League or any of the other top leagues in Europe.”
Liverpool and Southampton were both monitoring him closely in this period, with the two clubs having previously dealt with Salzburg. There was also interest from numerous top clubs in France. “He made his decision and we had a lot of other clubs asking for Naby at this time,” said Sauer. “For him, I think it was important to know that if he went to Leipzig that they played similar football. He knew that if he went to Leipzig, it would be easier for him to adapt to this higher football level because he knew some of the players, as some had moved from Salzburg to Leipzig, and the similar style of football.”
Berisha agrees: “He left as a much better player. Leipzig had the connection with Salzburg, and it was a good experience for him to go there and show his talent.”
Leipzig’s Training Centre Cottaweg, where the players train each day, is peaceful. Home games are played a 10-minute walk away on the other side of the Elsterbecken, a man-made river basin. Keita arrived at the Red Bull Arena with the right-back Benno Schmitz and the centre-back Dayot Upamecano, while he was reunited with his former teammates Bernardo, Marcel Sabitzer, Stefan Ilsanker and Péter Gulácsi. However, Keita’s start was difficult, despite scoring an 89th minute winner from the bench on his debut in a 1-0 win over Borussia Dortmund.
“In the first six months, you couldn’t really tell [how gifted he was],” said Leipzig’s goalkeeper Gulácsi. “He did good things in training and you could see that he was a tidy player, but because of the language, the culture, so many differences. He was coming from a totally different world and then he had to perform.”
Keita scored against Werder Bremen and SC Freiburg, as Leipzig matched Bayern Munich at the top of the table. A humiliating 3-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern at the Allianz Arena just before the winter break tempered expectations, but Keita’s individual performances improved through the spring. “Then, he just exploded,” said Gulácsi, showing an upward trajectory wth his hand.
“After he was just going up high. He has things that you cannot learn. His ball control, awareness on the pitch, his positioning, his small touches, how he takes on players. As a central midfielder, it’s very special how he plays. There are not many players in Europe who can play in the same way as he does.”
Managed by Ralph Hasenhüttl, Leipzig finished second in their first ever season in the German top flight. Keita contributed eight goals and seven assists in the league, with only the striker Timo Werner finding the net more frequently. It was this form that convinced Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool to trigger his £48million release clause (plus an undisclosed premium) in the summer of 2017. The deal allowed the Guinean to stay at Leipzig for a further 12 months.
Did Keita seek any advice from Gulácsi, who had spent six years at Liverpool? “Not really,” he said. “It was his decision; he didn’t really ask me. I would have said a few things, but since I left there have been so many changes at the club.”
An underwhelming campaign followed, with the midfielder struggling for form as he prepared to relocate. Frustration translated into a burst of three red cards in a 39-day spell. “His movements are very smooth and very quick, it’s always the case that players are fouling him, and it gets physical,” said Sauer. “Sometimes, he gets emotional about this and because he was and still is a young player, he got three red cards. It has got better, and I think this comes more with experience and age.”
Klopp’s methods aren’t too dissimilar from the model that has seen Keita thrive, but the Premier League has brought another step-up in pace and increased expectations. Keita showed brief glimpses of his ability early in the season against West Ham and Crystal Palace – in particular his touch after receiving a ball from goalkeeper Alisson that took him away from a Palace attacker and then the customary drive into the central area of the pitch that finished with a looped pass into the stride of Mohamed Salah. But an indifferent display against Brighton saw him lose his place and he made just one start in the league during the three months that followed, a spell that included four games out with muscular problems.
“Naby is clever, it’s not a problem for him,” said Arpinon. “He can adapt his game tactically between teams because he is very clever on the pitch. He can play behind the striker: for me, Naby can play anywhere across the middle. I think he is better near to the striker because he can score, make assists. When he loses the ball, he can be the difference to win it back. He can do the job of Kanté, as he is very strong.”
It’s this counter-pressing that should enable him to fulfil a role in Liverpool’s midfield three, although his struggle for goals is a concern. His former teammates, though, are sure he will adapt. “I think for sure that Liverpool are going to enjoy him for the coming seasons,” said Berisha. “He will continue to develop and in the Premier League he will be a very different player.”