Why there is no midfielder in the world like €80m Naby Keita
Jurgen Klopp’s directive to Liverpool’s recruitment team for the summer was unambiguous: identify players guaranteed to inject greater quality to the first XI, which in turn would create a higher level of competition throughout the squad to advance his methodology.
Quantity wouldn’t cut it, with nothing less than exceptional slated for the club’s main business.
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"The world is not full of players who will make us better immediately,” the Reds boss noted to this end in May. “But clearly there are a few out there and we'll speak to them.”
One of the chief difference-makers Klopp had in mind was revealed two months earlier by Goal; RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita was the man who could dynamise Liverpool’s midfield.
For anyone who watched the 22-year-old destroy, dominate, as well as design his side’s attacking direction last season - all with equal aplomb - the link made absolute sense.
For those that have tracked the Guinea international prior to his switch to the Bundesliga - Liverpool included - the link is the only one to absolutely lose your senses for.
As Ted Knutson, who used to operate as Head of Player Analytics for Brentford and Midtjylland so succinctly put it: ‘If you can get Naby Keita, you get Naby Keita!’
With an ambitious, financially strong Leipzig being obstructive to a deal, Liverpool would need to smash the Bundesliga transfer record - the €75 million (£66m at the current exchange rate) that took Kevin de Bruyne from Wolfsburg to Manchester City in 2015 - to tempt the German outfit into a sale.
Knutson believes Keita’s multi-faceted strengths in the middle of the pitch, coupled with his suitability for Klopp’s aggressive blueprint, makes him worth whatever eye-catching fee forces Die Bullen to sanction his exit.
“His skill set is extremely rare, and elite skill sets - especially for all-rounders - tend to command huge transfer fees in football,” he explained to Goal.
“Given his age, production, and fit for that particular style of play, I could easily see a team setting the Bundesliga transfer record right now.
“If he plays regularly, that could certainly feel like good business a couple of years down the line.”
From a recruitment angle, the dilemma is that there are no obvious alternatives to the lynchpin. “There are a lot of good midfielders out there, but none who is quite like Keita,” details Knutson, who is also the owner of StatsBomb.
Liverpool will be all too aware of that having studied the player’s progress from Istres to Salzburg before he developed into one of Europe’s foremost prospects at the Red Bull Arena.
In the analytical world, the gifts of the No.6, who is equally effective as a box-to-box midfielder or a playmaker, has been no secret.
“Naby first showed up as an obviously strong choice in the 2014-15 season where he was probably the best defensive midfielder in Austria,” says Knutson.
“A year later, he was the best attacking midfielder, but still had outstanding defensive output, which almost never happens.
“The only real question we had was how he would fit into Champions League-level teams from a passing perspective, but I'd say he answered all those questions pretty soundly last season, competing in one of the best leagues in Europe.”
The pursuit of Keita, which is set to be escalated this week, is another signal that Liverpool’s recruitment strategy has become more unified and surgical.
“I obviously have a particular perspective, but the transfers since last summer certainly feel smarter. I really liked both the Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah deals, and if they were to land Keita, it would already be an amazing transfer window.”