Naby Keïta arrived at Liverpool with lofty expectations. Keïta was one of the top midfielders in the Bundesliga before arriving at Liverpool in 2018, having played for RB Salzburg and then RB Leipzig in his career. The Guinea international arrived on Merseyside inheriting the number eight shirt last worn by Steven Gerrard and Liverpool anticipated him providing a similar box to box contribution to Gerrard. However, he never really managed to get going at Liverpool being heavily hampered by injuries. Every time he had a good run of games it was ended by an injury which sidelined him for weeks or months. However, this season, we are starting to see the man Liverpool anticipated and initially signed having found a run of health that has allowed him to play more minutes this season than he had in his other seasons for the club. In the second half of the season, in particular, Jürgen Klopp has trusted Keïta in some of their biggest games including the FA Cup final and Carabao Cup final.
This scout report and tactical analysis will take a look at Keïta this season and analyse whether he is finally becoming the man they anticipated, in addition to assessing the contribution he brings to this dominant Liverpool side.
Naby Keïta perfectly describes the midfield role of a number eight. The number eight role expects a player to provide a significant contribution both in and out of possession and this is what Keïta does. He is a player who has a wide passing range and can play effective passes when faced with a tactical low block but also in the attacking transition. He can drop deeper to assist in the deeper phase of the attack and in and around the box when it comes to creating goal-scoring opportunities. Defensively, he can help disrupt opposition attacks, often through his counter-pressing. His pressing ability is also strong, as you would expect having come through the Red Bull system.
Keïta has always been a player who, when analysing the data, has stood out. This was very much the case with his time at RB Leipzig, where he drew the attention of many of Europe’s top clubs due to his impressive numbers. We will take a look at his data performance, this season in both in possession and out of possession metrics, against other Premier League midfielders with over 1000 minutes. Firstly, we will look at his chance creating ability by measuring Keïta’s expected assists per 90 and key passes per 90 (a pass that directly goalscoring opportunity). Keïta manages an xA of 0.09 per 90 and 0.470 key passes per 90. In terms of xA, Keïta is slightly below sample average; However, he is above average for key passes per 90. This is the case for other midfielders Thiago and Jordan Henderson, which reflects the chance creating responsibility Liverpool place on their full-backs.
Below are two more graphs which indicate Keïta’s ability to create chances, firstly showing smart passes per 90 (a pass which attempts to penetrate the opposition defensive lines) and smart pass accuracy percentage.
Keïta records 1.2 smart passes per 90 at an accuracy of 55%, which makes him one of the best performers in the sample. This is a similar situation for through passes per 90 and accurate through passes percentage, as shown below.
Keïta again manages an above-average number of passes at an above-average completion rate This is also the case for passes to the penalty area per 90 and accurate passes to the penalty area percentage.
The previous four graphs and metrics show that Keïta can consistently produce accurate passes that create chances for his teammates and look to break the opposition’s defensive line.
As we eluded to earlier, Keïta’s contribution in possession is vast, and he is as effective in the deeper phases of the buildup play. A great way of assessing this is by looking at progressive passes per 90 and accurate progressive passes percentage Keïta is one of the sample’s top performers, with 6.65 progressive passes per 90 at an accuracy rate of 84.71%.
Not only is Keïta an effective ball progressor with his passing but he is also effective with progressive carries.
Keïta is one of the best progressive carriers, especially as a central midfielder. This rounds off the in-possession metrics and hopefully shows the all-around and multi-faceted contribution Keïta brings to Liverpool.
Now it is harder to measure defensive contribution than it is to measure in-possession contribution. However, there are some metrics which do help us get an understanding of how effective Keïta is out of possession. Firstly, we will look at defensive duels per 90 and defensive duels win percentage
Keïta records 8.09 defensive duels per 90, which considering he plays for one of the most possession-dominant teams in the league, is very impressive. He also manages to win these duels at an impressive rate of 60%, again well above the sample average. Finally, we will address Keïta’s performance in possession adjusted interceptions and tackles. The reason they are adjusted for possession is to remove the bias that these metrics can have towards players in low possession teams.
As you can see from the graph, Keïta has one of the highest PAdj interceptions with 7 per 90 in the sample and the players who have similar numbers are more traditional defensive midfielders. Keïta is just above average for slide tackles with 0.58.
Hopefully, this data analysis has given you a better understanding of Naby Keïta and the vast contribution he offers to Liverpool both in and out of possession, while also showing how he consistently manages to perform amongst the league’s best midfielders.
As we have alluded to, the contribution Keïta makes in possession is vast, with his wide passing range but also his dribbling and ball carrying, which we will delve into, analysing how he manages to do these so effectively. We will also analyse his wider contribution to the Liverpool build-up and how he offers an additional dimension. Below we will show a couple of examples of the role and quality Keïta brings to Liverpool in possession.
The first example is probably a perfect synopsis of the all-around quality and attributes Keïta brings to the team, it comes against Benfica in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg. The Benfica man plays a loose pass and Keïta reacts quickly to win the ball.
After collecting the ball, Keïta is going to demonstrate his ball carrying skills by driving into the highlighted space in the middle of the field. He manages to get away from the Benfica defenders and enter the opposition half. He then decides to release Luis Díaz who is drifting off the left and looking to exploit the opposition’s defensive line.
Keïta perfectly weights his pass so Díaz can retrieve the ball before rounding the emerging Benfica goalkeeper.
Here, Keïta demonstrated a bit of his ball carrying skills but the next example shows them in greater depth. It is from a recent game against Aston Villa, where Keïta receives the ball in his own half and has John McGinn and Danny Ings right behind him.
Keïta manages to carry the ball forward slightly before McGinn catches him up, but Keïta uses a brilliant bit of skill to evade him. Stepping infield before instantly switching the ball back out and losing McGinn, shown below.
After doing this, Ings now manages to get back, but Keïta uses his strength to outmuscle him off the ball before playing a one-two with Mohamed Salah and drifting into the highlighted space between the lines.
After receiving the ball between the lines, Keïta continues to progress the ball up the field by carrying it to the edge of the box. The attack fizzles out and Aston Villa turn the ball over but there is a lack of options for Keïta to pass to, with only the one viable option.
Despite the attack breaking down, Keïta has managed to take the ball from his own half to the edge of the opposition box and if he had been given more passing options, he could have created a goalscoring opportunity.
The final aspect of Keïta in possession we will look at is how he can offer a different dimension to Liverpool in attack. Keïta is probably the only Liverpool midfielder who is comfortable operating between the midfield block and the defensive line. This isn’t something Thiago, Fabinho and Henderson excel at and can sometimes lead to situations where Liverpool struggles to break teams down in a low defensive block. This is something Liverpool faced in the second leg against Villarreal, where they sat in a low defensive shape of 4-4-2. In the second half, Liverpool adjusted with Thiago dropping a bit deeper and Keïta pushing up and getting between the lines, which worked a treat. Below is one of several examples from that game, where Keïta got between the lines.
Although there is a significant amount of space, Keïta still needs to find the space and get there to receive the pass. Once he’s received the ball, he turns and carries it forward before playing a pass behind the Villareal defensive line for Sadio Mané. Again, another brilliantly weighted pass created a goalscoring opportunity for Liverpool.
As mentioned at the start of the scout report, one of the key contributions Keïta brings to Liverpool is his counter-pressing and overall pressing. One aspect of this that Keïta particularly excels at is turnovers high up the field and in the opposition half, so far this term, he has averaged 8.17 recoveries in the opposition half per 90. Below will show some examples of Keïta doing this in 2021/22.
This is from the FA Cup final, with Chelsea having just dispossessed the Reds inside their own half. Chalobah, having won the ball, is now going to play it forward to Mason Mount. Keïta instantly looks to win the ball back and identifies that the ball will be played to Mount.
As Chalobah carries the ball forward, Keïta doesn’t instantly press or mark Mount, rather he waits for the pass from Chalobah. As the pass is made, he presses and makes a well-timed interception in Chelsea’s half.
This is a similar situation to this one from the semi-final against Manchester City, again dispossessing an opposition player in their own half. On this occasion, Bernardo Silva is on the ball looking to progress the play, while Keïta is waiting for the right moment to press him.
Now with no real obvious passing option, Silva turns his back to play the ball to City’s backline; this decision triggers Keïta’s press and the Liverpool man quickly closes the ground before poking the ball away from his opponent, creating a turnover in the opposition half. This example shows both his speed to quickly close Silva down and the pressing intelligence to not just press him straight away but to wait for him to turn.
Keïta wins the ball after the challenge and coolly releases Mané through on goal where he gets caught by a last-ditch challenge from John Stones.
This scout report and tactical analysis hopefully gives you a greater insight into the skills and attributes that Naby Keïta brings to Liverpool, and how he has provided a significant contribution to their push for trophies this season. The Guinean midfielder has a wide skill range, especially in possession where he can progress the ball with his dribbling and passing, while also providing tactical variety in midfield. This leads to him being an attacking threat in possession, as shown in the examples above. Defensively, Keïta thrives off pressing and harassing opposition players, but he uses speed and intelligence to make himself so effective when out of possession — not a headless chicken, but rather an intelligent pressing machine.