Naby Keita. Just a few years ago, his name evoked fervent exaltation in some sectors of the soccer analytics community – he was the young midfielder who could do it all, with apparently unlimited talents both attacking and defending. Now, he can’t get a game for Liverpool. What happened?
To answer this question, I think it’s important to understand where Keita started. Following an impressive maiden season in Europe at Istres, he began 2014-15 playing a combination of defensive midfield and central midfield at Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga. Even as a defensive midfielder, he pushed the ball upfield often, with attacking output at the top of the scale in NYA’s models. He started out relying on passes, then gradually became more of a dribbler, taking the ball forward himself. But equally important, he was a hyperactive defender, breaking up plays and intercepting passes at a phenomenal rate.
After two seasons in Salzburg, the supremos at Red Bull decided to move Keita to their flagship club in Leipzig. There he did more of the same, with an even heavier emphasis on dribbling and more all-action defending. But here’s the thing: he was never a very skillful dribbler, or even a very skillful tackler. NYA evaluates specific skills like dribbling and tackling outside of players’ contributions to winning, and by these metrics Keita was nothing special. Still, given his big numbers in the models, and only in his early 20s, wasn’t he doing enough to become a star?
The Austrian Bundesliga is an unusual place. It has one dominant club – Salzburg – that can compete in Europe, then a few also-rans, and finally a bunch of clubs that wouldn’t look out of place at the bottom of one of Europe’s second divisions. It’s also one of the least balanced leagues in terms of the adaptability of its players. In NYA’s league adjustments, which are separate for attacking and defending, players from Austria are expected to have a tougher transition to higher-level leagues in defending than in attacking.
So in analyzing Keita, it was important to take his defending output with a grain of salt. He played in a lot of lopsided matches, and any underlying skill in tackling appeared to be missing – a weakness that was further exposed in Germany and could become downright glaring in England. He was likely to come up short in ball retention, too; for players from Austria, the gap to higher-level leagues in ball retention was even greater than for defending. As a storming midfielder, he might not have been expected to be the most secure in possession. But deficiency in this area wasn’t necessarily going to help him secure playing time at Liverpool.
Given the level of expectations surrounding Keita, a possible point of comparison is N’Golo Kanté, another central midfielder with a dazzling ability to disrupt opponents’ moves and pick off passes. By contrast with Keita, Kanté is also an extremely skillful dribbler and tackler. He doesn’t get forward as often as Keita – that’s not his game – but unsurprisingly his ball retention is much higher. Overall, Keita has a broader risk profile than Kanté; you might get more, but you might lose more as well.
I’ve written in the past about Liverpool’s taste for risk. By contrast with Arsenal’s monotonous streak of top-four finishes and no titles, Liverpool seemed to be using a similar wage bill to target anywhere from seventh to first – as long as they had a chance at the title. Keita’s signing may have fit this strategy. But so far, he looks like one of the risks that hasn’t worked out.