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Did analytics get Naby Keïta wrong?
He was supposed to become a superstar. He hasn't. What happened?
I might never live down how enthusiastic I was when Liverpool first showed interest in Naby Keïta.
“Game-changing signing”, I told people. “World-class midfielder”.
“Liverpool have replaced Steven Gerrard”.
It, err, hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Mike Goodman and Michael Caley of the Double Pivot podcast recently did an episode looking at midfielders who really shined in the data, and how often they’ve failed to scale up those skills at bigger clubs. Keïta absolutely fits that mould. He profiled in the numbers as the ultimate box-to-box midfielder, someone who could do everything very well. At Liverpool, he’s done everything to an underwhelming level. His numbers still pop, which led Caley and Goodman to suggest his problem is simply injuries, and he has maintained a very high level when he actually gets on the pitch. Having watched almost every game Keïta has played for Liverpool, I really disagree with this. To the eye, his performances have always looked short of where they need to be.
In fairness, some very clever people were onboard the Keïta hype train. Liverpool’s sporting director Michael Edwards seems to know what he’s doing, and he was on exactly the same page as Jürgen Klopp with this deal. RB Leipzig, no fools in the transfer market, desperately tried to avoid selling him. The club initially rejected a £66 million bid from Liverpool, while sporting director Ralf Rangnick (you may have heard of him) insisted Keïta was not for sale at any price. Liverpool were only able to land Keïta by leveraging a release clause in his contract that would not kick in until the following summer and had to wait twelve months for him to arrive. RB Leipzig were desperate to keep him.
If Rangnick et al had any inkling at all that Keïta was not a sure thing, they would’ve taken the money and ran.
Both Liverpool and RB Leipzig have been big advocates of using analytics in football. Keïta very obviously fit this mould. Some of you are reading this and screaming “Bundesliga tax”, but it’s actually worse than that. Keïta had been a stats favourite since his days in the Austrian Bundesliga. Colin Trainor, an influential analyst in the earlier days of football data who has since left the field, flagged him in April 2016 as belonging to the same tier as Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and Neymar. At the same time, he was getting statistical raves as a box-to-box midfielder. Ok, it’s Austria, but this guy was doing everything.
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If you’re doing very well at Red Bull Salzburg, there’s a very obvious move to make. So he packed his bags and moved about 300 miles north to Leipzig. He dominated Germany’s top-flight pretty much instantly at the heart of a young and vibrant newly-promoted RB Leipzig team. In his rave about the player during that season, Tom Payne (now an analyst at Bolton Wanderers, previously working with England) claimed that Keïta is “teaching us how to run a midfield”. I’d recommend reading the whole article just to understand how much Keïta was doing back then.
His second season in Germany wasn’t quite so impressive, but he still looked every bit a player who could thrive anywhere. The only problem was injuries, which gets us to our first “excuse” for why he hasn’t thrived in England. Continued knocks have seen him not just miss games but lose some of his athleticism on the pitch. In 2016, Ted Knutson called him “honestly one of the most athletic young central midfielders I have ever scouted”. This was essential to how the Red Bull clubs used him, as he was a very fast presser to help quickly regain the ball. Watching him today, he just doesn’t look remotely that energetic. It would be harsh to call him sluggish, but he’s certainly not one of the most athletic players in the Premier League. That’s taken away a lot of what made him great.
This is more of a problem because England’s top flight is obviously a physical league. There are different kinds of physical qualities. Some players aren’t the most mobile but rely on their size and stature to impose themselves on opponents. Others are short, but use their body strength and low centre of gravity to become difficult to get clattered into. Keïta’s ex-teammate Gini Wijnaldum is in that category. If you didn’t know already, I’m betting you would’ve guessed he’s taller than 5’9 (1.75m). He intelligently uses the physical qualities he has to mask this and emphasise how well he shields the ball. When he’s in possession, it’s a nightmare to try and win the ball off him because of how press-resistant he is.
Keïta can’t do that. He can do things with the ball at his feet that Wijnaldum could barely dream of, but he frequently gives the ball away much more cheaply than Wijnaldum did in the same role. Earlier in his career, he might have used his stamina to recover the ball more quickly, but that isn’t quite there. He tries to do a lot of the things that a more press-resistant midfielder would do, dribbling through tight spaces and shifting it to avoid getting pick-pocketed, but he doesn’t have the strength or stamina to withstand opponents. He’s modelled his game around having a greater ability to hold off opposition players than he currently has.
Some of that might be the difference between the Bundesliga and the Premier League. I don’t have the data to back this up, but the stereotypical view is definitely that players in England are bigger and stronger than their counterparts in Germany. Keïta’s physical decline might be exaggerated by taking on players bigger and harder. As shown by Wijnaldum and others, it’s not impossible for a midfielder around Keïta’s height to really hold their own physically in the Premier League. But it’s very difficult, as Keïta has found out. He has a go-to move where he stops dribbling for a second and pauses, then shifts it on the outside of his foot. This would be absolutely deadly if he had the body strength to withstand pressure, but right now he can’t make it work every time.
Something I think the numbers are picking up on correctly is his creativity. He’s someone who consistently shows up as a big plus in terms of creative passing and dribbling. We’ve seen him slide through perfectly weighted through balls quite a few times for Liverpool. This is, in isolation, obviously a very positive skill to have.
But is it the right one for this specific team? In twelve between Keïta signing the contract and actually arriving at Anfield, Klopp’s team went through a tactical evolution. The side became much, much more focused on creating in wide areas through the full backs. The attack was suddenly all about Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson getting it to the forwards. The Liverpool team Keïta arrived at wasn’t looking for a “line-breaking” midfielder. This has never been a strength of his game. Even when otherwise praising him, Payne admitted that “Keïta [needs to] be more careful when he has the ball in his own half”, as he “loses possession too often in deep positions”. Liverpool’s midfield in the last few seasons has been all about not losing the ball in deep positions and leaving the risk-taking to the full backs. Keïta hasn’t been able to adjust his game to this.1
While it’s great in theory to have a “do everything” profile, it’s rare that teams need a midfielder to do all of those things at once. And I don’t think we should necessarily infer that being able to do everything means a player will do one or two things extremely well instead. I keep bringing him up as a point of comparison, but Keïta hasn’t shown the tactical intelligence of Wijnaldum to scale back his game as the system requires. Keïta is a natural risk-taker, which is great in a team like RB Leipzig that built the system around his risks. Without that, he reminds me a little of Ángel Di María at Manchester United: doing ambitious things when the manager clearly just wanted him to keep it ticking over.
The same might be true of his work off the ball. In Liverpool’s title-winning 19/20 season, Keïta averaged nearly three times as many tackles and interceptions when he was on the pitch as Wijnaldum, as well as 56% more pressures (per FBRef, using data provided by StatsBomb). But I am certain Klopp viewed the Dutchman as his more “defensively secure” option. I’ve become more and more sceptical of the value in these numbers. Yes, you can possession-adjust them (though it’s not needed when both players are in the same team). But even then, I don’t think you can always infer defensive usefulness from counting stats. The Paolo Maldini quote that if he has to tackle he’s already made a mistake has been, I think, greatly overused (and possibly poorly translated). There are absolutely roles and moments where you want someone making a lot of tackles. Leicester signed N’Golo Kanté based on his volume of tackles, and he’s clearly an outstanding player. But it feels like a correlation rather than a causation. I’ve seen enough players put up big ball winning numbers by constantly getting caught out of position that I’m done saying anyone is good at defending because of volume of tackles.
So some of Keïta’s problems aren’t really the fault of analytics. Liverpool have changed their style up a little bit, and his skill set isn’t quite as needed as it might have been. And injuries really have taken their toll, robbing him of some of that athleticism. But it still has to be a learning opportunity for use of data in football. The big numbers he was putting up were questionable in how he would adapt to another team, both in terms of how he won the ball and the risks he took once he had it. This isn’t to say that Keïta couldn’t have been very good in a slightly different system and with a better fitness record. But we do need to be more careful with that sort of statistical midfield profile. “Doing everything” can become doing nothing very fast.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played the role Keïta was probably earmarked for in 2017-18, and did so very well. But when Pepijn Lijnders replaced Željko Buvač as Klopp’s assistant in 2018, he seemed to prompt a tactical rethink. Liverpool moved on from using a midfielder who would push into the final third and create.