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Nobody Can Stop Naby

Naby Keita and RB Leipzig have turned the Bundesliga upside down

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Take a look at the top of the Bundesliga table. You won’t see Bayern Munich, who’ve won the last four German titles, and you won’t see Borussia Dortmund, who won the two titles before that. Instead, you’ll see a team that didn’t exist the last time another club broke up that duoply.

Before 2009, RasenBallsport Leipzig were known as SSV Markranstadt, a relatively unremarkable East German side in the country’s fifth division. But after the club was bought by Red Bull, incorporated into their growing network of clubs, rebranded, and infused with enough cash to out net-spend Bayern, it only took them seven years to reach the top. Their money-fueled rise has received plenty of criticism for ruining the tradition of German football; they openly threaten the “50+1” rule, which stipulates that more than 50 percent of each club be owned by its members. While these complaints are somewhat justified — the 50+1 rule is one of the reasons why Germany is considered such a progressive footballing nation in Europe — there’s no way around it: RB Leipzig are one of the most exciting projects in world football.

Instead of spending their newfound cash on already-established stars, as we’ve seen at Chelsea and Manchester City over the past 15 years, Leipzig have made large investments in player development, which has produced the likes of Bayern Munich’s Swiss army knife Joshua Kimmich in recent years. They’ve recruited almost exclusively young players, resulting in one of the best collections of prospects in the world.

For Leipzig, the “star is the system,” according to first team coach Ralph Hasenhuttl. Their defense is primed for winning the ball close to the opposition’s goal with an aggressive press. The intensity is then carried over to an attack based on direct combinations and off-the-ball runs that can cut up the defense in a matter of seconds — something Mainz discovered recently.

Football clubs are richer than they’ve ever been, but with more money comes more chances to waste it. In a transfer market in which Premier League sides are spending 30 million euros on backups, RB Leipzig are teaching us how to run a football club both on and off the field. And at the center of it all, Naby Keita is teaching us how to run a midfield.

Just 21 years old, Keita is yet another big talent to emerge from the lower ranks of French football. At 18, he left his native Guinea to join Ligue 2 outfit FC Istres. It then only took a single year for Red Bull’s extensive scouting network to pick up on the midfielder. After spending two seasons at Red Bull’s Salzburg club, he transferred to Leipzig over the summer, helping bolster the squad for their first season in the Bundesliga.

The totality of Keita’s ability personifies Red Bull football, where attack and defense are blended together and defined by one word: direct. Keita can play behind the strikers or in front of the centerbacks, and he’s an influence in either penalty area — whether it’s a last-ditch, match-saving tackle in his own box …

… or a long-shot into the side-netting:

But if there’s one skill that sets him apart from the other box-to-box midfielders of the world, it’s his ability to carry the ball through opposition defenses. In a system where fast ball progression is key, Keita fits perfectly. Only four players carry the ball farther than him in the league, and he tops the list of Leipzig players.

With three successful dribbles per 90, Keita is putting a host of wingers — even Bayern’s Arjen Robben — to shame. At 5-foot-8, he looks like the kind of speedster whose province is typically the touchline. And really, he plays like one too: He’ll throw his defender with sharp changes of direction or he’ll motor up to top speed as he rushes forward at an unprepared defense — except he does it all from the much more dangerous center of the field. This gives him the upper hand in one-on-ones against typically slower center midfielders, and if the defense is naïve enough to give up open spaces, he’ll explode through them.

While Keita’s speed and agility are a problem for opposing defenses, they’re also why he’s Leipzig’s turnover-forcing machine. Look at how he pounces on this loose ball:

Of course, all the physical ability in the world can only get you so far, but Keita’s subtle ball skills complete the package. You’ll never see him do an impression of 2007 Cristiano Ronaldo; his dribbling is based entirely on deft touches with either foot, fluid changes of direction, fast footwork, and a masterful control of rhythm. He often waits for the opponent to commit to a tackle before taking the ball away at the last moment. Doing this in a one-on-one on the sideline is one thing, doing it to two or three players in five seconds while at full-sprint is game-breaking.

Keita’s ability to carry the ball through tight spaces is one of Leipzig’s biggest creative tools, as it creates space for teammates by drawing the attention of defenders. Plenty of players can barrel into an opposing defense, but Keita will then find the open teammate more often than not. His calm decision-making amidst the chaos is what keeps Leipzig’s 100-mph football on track.

It’s still just his first season of top-flight football, and Keita can be more careful when he has the ball in his own half. He loses possession too often in deep positions, but Leipzig’s counter-pressing system, where the team’s directive is to win the ball back as soon as they lose it, can account for those mistakes. And with all the big English clubs rumored to be interested in his services, it’s clear that everything Keita brings to the table overshadows whatever he might take off of it.

For now, though, Leipzig’s ascent currently shows few signs of stopping. They haven’t just beaten Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, they’ve completely out-played them too. By expected goals, they have the best attack and the best defense in Germany. Leipzig are schooling the league renowned for pressing and intensity with their own … well, pressing and intensity. And if “the star is the system,” then Keita is the most important cog.