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Daniel Levy’s Imaginary Short List: Naby Keita

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Read about the Bundesliga’s best midfielder before he inevitably joins Liverpool and sets the Premier League on fire.

3rd Place Match - Audi Quattro Cup 2015 Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

We at Cartilage Free Captain do transfer rumors often, and we do them well. But sometimes it’s worth doing a deeper dive into Tottenham Hotspur’s transfer targets, so we’re bringing back a series from a couple of years ago — Daniel Levy’s Imaginary Shortlist. These are players that Spurs have either been linked to in the transfer window, or sometimes who they should be linked to as the club tries to improve to challenge for a Premier League title.

Up next: RasenBallsport Leipzig (I had to type out that absurd name at least once) midfielder and Guinean international Naby Keita

The Basics

Name: Naby Keita

Age: 22

Team: RB Leipzig

Nationality: Guinean

League: Bundesliga

Primary position: Central Midfielder

Secondary positions: Attacking Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder

Naby Keita is the midfield engine for Bundesliga runners-up RB Leipzig. Michael Caley has explained their system in more detail, but this is the short version: They sit deeper than the average Bundesliga side and defend the defensive third more than the average German club. Whereas most Bundesliga teams contest the midfield and concede more space in the defensive third, RBL try to both contest the game in midfield and defend in numbers at the back.

The reason they’re able to do this is simple: His name is Naby Keita. Keita, much like N’Golo Kante in each of the last two seasons with both Leicester City and Chelsea, is able to cover so much ground and initiate attacks consistently enough that the team can do things tactically that normal clubs simply can’t get away with. Leicester fans would joke during their title campaign that they played three midfielders: Danny Drinkwater with N’Golo Kante on either side. Something like that applies to RBL with Keita.

The Specifics

Keita’s skillset is much broader than your typical midfielder. To begin, he can cover tons of ground in midfield. In 31 appearances for RBL this year, he averaged 2.6 tackles/match, 2.6 interceptions, and 2.3 fouls committed. That said, you can find other midfielders who run and defend like Keita. We already have one, after all, in Victor Wanyama.

The other big thing Keita brings to the table is his ability to progress the ball. What’s particularly striking about Keita in this regard is the variety of ways he can progress the ball. There are a lot of players who are elite at progressing the ball, but most are elite in a single area: Dribbling, like Mousa Dembele or Eden Hazard, or pushing the ball forward as a passer, like Xabi Alonso or David Luiz. Keita, however, excels in both areas. Caley’s graphic explains it well:

You can see all the things Keita does well in this short clip. Just watch the number eight in black:

And don’t just take my word for it, here is Ted Knutson gushing over Keita way back when he was in Austria with Salzburg:

A lot of this has to do with who do you think needs replacing and why. Most people asked for a defensive midfielder, but seemed to want passing range and versatility. That is a tough combination to come by, and I think the rumored Granit Xhaka is rather good.

However… if I am buying one central midfielder in Europe right now, it’s Naby Keita.

Need a DM? Naby Keita.

Need an 8? Naby Keita.

A 10 that scores, creates, and destroys?

Na-bee Kay-tuh.

(Last time I did a bit like this, it was about Ivan Rakitic replacing Steven Gerrard before there was even a whisper of Rac-attack moving to Barcelona, so you know I am deadly serious.)

Just 21 years old, he played as an elite defensive midfielder in a pressing system last season. This season he moved forward into an 8/10 role and has put up outrageous scoring stats while losing very little defensive output.

No one does that.

The Verdict

Likely price: £70m

Chances that the valuation is wrong: He’s under contract for three more years, but has said he will not sign another deal with RBL. So he’s definitely leaving and if RBL want the most money, they’ll sell him now since their bargaining power will only weaken over time. While that may seem like a high price to pay, Keita may well be the answer to the question “How good would N’Goussa Kambele be?” Given that Kante has been the best player on the last two Premier League champions and that Dembele has arguably been the linchpin to Tottenham’s success for most of the past two seasons (and was central on the first AVB team as well), well, £70m doesn’t seem crazy.

Team’s willingness to sell: RBL aren’t keen to lose Keita for obvious reasons, but as we said above, they don’t have a ton of options here. He has already said he doesn’t want to stay in Leipzig long term and his quality is such that they won’t be able to keep him for much longer. So they’re going to have to sell.

Fit at Tottenham Hotspur: Keita is the answer to the question “How will Spurs replace Mousa Dembele?” Unfortunately, he’s also the answer to the question “How can Liverpool fix their midfield?” Plus he is good friends with Sadio Mane, having played with the Liverpool winger when they were both at RedBull Salzburg under Roger Schmidt and the two players have the same agent. Plus given his experience with Schmidt at Salzburg and this past season at RBL, he should pick up the intricacies of Jurgen Klopp’s system without too much trouble. So all signs point to Liverpool as the destination, even if he would be completely perfect for Tottenham.

Possibility he ends up at Spurs: Very low. Liverpool appear to be in the driver’s seat to sign him. If he doesn’t join the Reds this summer, he’ll have another year to impress in the Bundesliga and will also be playing in the Champions League. So if he doesn’t end up leaving RBL this summer, it probably means he’ll end up at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Manchester City next summer.

Grade if this transfer goes through: A+++++++