25th November 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
RB Leipzig's ascension to the top of the Bundesliga has been nothing short of remarkable. Although they've unquestionably constructed an impressive young squad that's bursting with talent, even they wouldn't have dreamt that they'd reach the summit of the league just 11 matches in.
With Bayern Munich losing to Borussia Dortmund on the weekend, Leipzig's scintillating 3-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen was enough to propel them to outright leaders and three points clear of Bayern. Indeed, quite the stuff of dreams by the Red Bull backed newcomers.
Their success has certainly been no fluke, however, for their superbly well coached and drilled by their fantastic manager, Ralf HasenhÃ¼ttl, who's intelligently implemented 4-2-2-2 hexagonal shape in the defensive phase of the game, which is nicely complimented by some well coordinated pressing, has made them hugely challenging to overcome.
Meanwhile, on the attacking end, the likes of Timo Werner, Marcel Sabitzer, Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg have provided the pace, trickery, imagination and dynamism in transition to unlock defences all over.
One man, in particular, Naby Keita, deserves to be singled out for special praise, for the gifted 21-year-old's been tremendous for the Red Bulls so far. The versatile midfielder, who's capable of playing in both attacking and defensive roles, has been an indispensable component of HasenhÃ¼ttl's outfit, with his incredibly well rounded skillset benefiting Leipzig hugely.
Since moving from sister club Red Bull Salzburg for €11 million in the summer, after two overwhelmingly successful years in Austria, he's quickly gone about cementing his reputation as one of the finest prospects in world football.
Scoring the winner in Leipzig's stirring opening day win vs Borussia Dortmund on his Bundesliga debut was the perfect way to kick things off. And from there, Keita's steadily progressed and subsequently earned himself a spot in Leipzig's highly competitive starting lineup courtesy of his consistently first-rate displays.
And in his team's most recent triumph, the aforementioned win over Leverkusen, Keita put in another exceptional shift, where he showcased so many of his qualities. Playing alongside the combative Diego Demme, who he's forging a tidy, complimentary partnership with in central midfield, Keita's sheer energy, combined with his technical ability and footballing intelligence, saw him have a profound impact on the contest.
Operating within the confines of HasenhÃ¼ttl's 4-2-2-2, he and Demme made up the third line of pressure, just in front of the centre-backs, and Keita vigorously executed his pressing duties with customary aggression and tenacity.
Whether on the left or right hand side of central midfield, he'd always ensure he was in close proximity to Julian Baumgartlinger and Kevin Kampl (on the left) and Charles Aranguiz and Julian Brandt (on the right). This zone oriented man coverage, in tandem with his nifty positional sense to block passing lanes with his cover shadow and capacity to read the play, undoubtedly added another layer of nuisance to Leverkusen and aptly evidenced his strong tactical acuity. Supplying an important three tackles and five interceptions punctuated his strong stopping exertions.
In Leipzig's possession phases, the Guinean contributed equally impressively too, with his blend of speed, ball control, purposeful movement and enviable range of passing giving Roger Schmidt's men all sorts of headaches.
Having a player that can receive the ball, turn on a dime and then rapidly run at the defense with such balance, pace and tight handling yet again made him a key element of his team's attacking excursions. As a result, Leverkusen found it very difficult to stop him, as there's just so many ways he can cause damage with the ball at his feet.
He also showed his unnerving poise and composure to play killer through balls with either foot and his wicked changes of pace and direction. Indeed, the fact he's so competent at a wide range of aspects going forward made him a very damaging, unpredictable prospect for the home side throughout.
Moreover, the way Leipzig's attackers overloaded central attacking areas certainly helped get the best out of him, for his teammates cunning movements successfully manouvred the Leverkusen defence about to create space for him to run into or manufacture many viable passing outlets for him to utilise.
His four dribbles, one key pass, two shots and one assist, which unleashed Forsberg in transition to go and score, gave a terrific insight into his effectiveness.
After once more impressing for the German upstarts to continue his flying start to life at the club, he'll be extremely content with his decision to join Leipzig instead of moving to one of the multitude of Premier League sides that were interested in him.
"Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton were all interested in signing me and Liverpool as well, although I did not speak with their coach," he said.
"I did not want to join a big Champions League club right away. It is too early for that. I want to prove myself in the Bundesliga first now."
He then went onto add how his relationship with sporting director Ralf Rangnick, who was instrumental in bringing him to Salzburg in 2014 too, played a key role in decision. "Ralf has treated me like a son. He came to France in 2014 to sign me for Salzburg and I trust him entirely," he explained.
Rangnick himself was absolutely delighted Keita chose to remain within the Red Bull family, insisting: "We are very pleased that Naby Keita has chosen, despite many requests from European clubs, to take his next steps in Leipzig. He fits our young team perfectly, with his dynamism, outstanding technical and tactical skills, and his character."
For the man labelled as the "African Deco" courtesy of his creative passing and diminutive frame, it really has been a dream start to life in the Bundesliga, which has completely vindicated his commitment to join Leipzig.
When quizzed on his ambitions for the season ahead, it's clear the starlet harbours a strong desire to reach the top of the sport and to replicate the career path of his idol Yaya Toure, while also accepting that it'll be a massive challenge to entirely adapt to life in the Bundesliga. "I want to be the best African footballer. My idol from Africa is [Cote d'Ivoire captain] Yaya Toure. He is strong, works hard and has made it to the very top," he said.
"There is more pressure, on and off the pitch. I'm a team player who gives my all for the team and tries to meet the tactical orders of the coach."
Possessing such metal fortitude, and the maturity, discipline, quality and dedication to match, expect the wildly talented, already complete Keita to one day develop into the a truly world class player.
Being at Leipzig, in an environment so conjucive to improving players, will undoubtedly give him every chance to do so.
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Naby Keita Helping to Drive RB Leipzig's Bundesliga Challenge
25th November 2016. By Edward Stratmann.