Three years ago, he was an unknown teenager facing relegation from France’s second tier. Now he’s set to join Liverpool. Nick Wright charts the extraordinary rise of RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita, the little midfielder with the big reputation.
Frederic Arpinon was sitting in his office at FC Istres when he took his first phone call about a young player named Naby Keita. It was October 2013 and Arpinon, a former midfielder turned sporting director, was looking for new recruits to help the second tier French side’s battle against relegation.
“I played football for a long time in France so I have a lot of contacts in the French game,” Arpinon tells Sky Sports. “There was a guy I knew at Le Mans. He called me up and told me he had a very good player. He said: ‘Fred, trust me, you have to take a look at this guy.'”
Keita was an 18-year-old midfielder from Guinea who had made the long journey to France in the hope of finding a club. Le Mans were unable to sign him themselves as they were on the brink of bankruptcy, but it wasn’t unusual for Arpinon to receive this kind of recommendation. He decided to make a few calls of his own. “I wanted to know: Who is this Naby Keita?” he says with a chuckle.
Arpinon spoke to people who had watched Keita play in a competition organised by the former Celtic defender Bobo Balde in nearby Marseille. He spoke to others who were involved at Le Mans. A picture began to emerge of a rough diamond with untapped potential. “Everybody I spoke to told me he was a fantastic player,” he says.
Arpinon was intrigued enough to invite Keita for a trial. “Naby arrived and it was immediately clear he was on a different level,” he says. “It was his technique. When he got on the ball, he reminded me of Andres Iniesta. After five minutes, I said, stop, stop, you are going to stay with us.”
Arpinon had a good record for bringing young talent to Istres having previously signed Olivier Giroud and Florian Lejeune, but Keita was special. The club scrambled together the necessary paperwork and tied him to a three-year contract. On November 22, 2013, he marked his debut with a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win over Nîmes. “He was fantastic,” says Arpinon.
The season would eventually end in relegation for Istres, but Keita shone in adversity, contributing four goals and seven assists in 23 appearances. “It was a good experience for Naby,” says Arpinon. “It was difficult for him when he arrived in France, being at Le Mans and not being able to play due to their financial problems, but he showed his character at Istres. We were very lucky.”
Keita was quiet but determined, soaking up as much information as he could and listening intently to the guidance of team-mate Jerome Leroy, a veteran midfielder who cut his teeth at Paris St Germain. Out on the pitch, his natural athleticism and eye-catching creativity marked him out as a player to watch in a division containing another emerging youngster by the name of N’Golo Kante.
Keita was operating at the opposite end of the table to Kante, who would go on to win promotion with Caen, but it wasn’t long before scouts started taking note. Arpinon recalls “a lot of clubs” looking at Keita as the season progressed, but French sides were reluctant to gamble on a 5ft 6ins teenager with only a few months of senior experience. “Everybody in France was afraid,” he says.
It cleared the way for Red Bull Global Soccer group, whose portfolio of clubs includes Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. Red Bull had started tracking Keita in December, a few weeks after his debut, but it was not until the final day of the season that their head of global soccer operations, a certain Gerard Houllier, gave the green light for his move to Salzburg.
“We were playing away against Angers,” says Arpinon, who took over managerial duties at Istres in the second half of that season and now heads up recruitment at FC Metz. “Gerard Houllier was sitting next to me in the stadium. He didn’t know Naby, he had just heard he was a good player. During the game he turned to me and said: ‘Naby is fantastic.'”
Red Bull Salzburg’s newly-appointed manager, Adi Hutter, was similarly impressed, and the Austrian champions duly struck the deal to sign him. “Naby Keita is a young, developing player who fits very well with our philosophy,” said their sporting director Ralf Ragnick when the move was confirmed. Two years and two league titles later, Ragnick would oversee Keita’s transfer to RB Leipzig.
From France to Austria to Germany, Keita’s development kept gathering pace. And at the start of last season, less than three years since scoring on his Istres debut in front of a sparse crowd at the Stade Parsemain, he marked his RB Leipzig bow by coming off the bench to fire a late winner against Borussia Dortmund. This time, he was surrounded by 42,500 fans at a sold out Red Bull Arena.
Keita became a talisman for the Bundesliga upstarts, adding his next two goals for the club in a 3-1 win over Werder Bremen in October. The first, when he danced through a crowded midfield, rounded the advancing goalkeeper and finished from a narrow angle, showed him at his devastating best. A few weeks after that, he struck a long-range goal of the season contender against Freiburg.
“He’s a crazy footballer,” said RB Leipzig head coach Ralph Hasenhuttl after the Werder Bremen game. Keita’s team-mates were equally approving. “I told Naby before the game that he is the best footballer of all, and that he only has to show it,” said centre-back Marvin Compper. “He showed it!”
Compper’s comments may have been light-hearted but it was only a few months later that Keita declared his desire to become the world’s best player. He has a long way to go to fulfil that particular ambition, but it is not difficult to see why he is so highly valued by RB Leipzig – nor is it difficult to understand why Liverpool are willing to shatter their transfer record in order to take him to Anfield.
Keita scored eight goals and claimed seven assists in 31 appearances from central midfield last season. His speed and stamina made him a perfect fit for Leipzig’s high-pressing style, and the stats show the remarkable breadth of his influence. Not only did Keita make more ball recoveries than any other outfield player in the Bundesliga, but only Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele completed more dribbles.
The numbers are extraordinary but they are no surprise to Arpinon. “People compare him to N’Golo Kante but he is a very different player,” he says. “Naby can play defensive midfield or offensive midfield. He can defend and attack. I knew Kante when he was at Caen but Naby is different. Naby can do everything.”
All he needed was an opportunity to show it. It is not yet clear whether Keita’s whirlwind career will take him to the Premier League just yet, but what’s certain is that there is plenty more to come from him. “It has happened very quickly, but we all knew he had a big future,” says Arpinon. “Everybody at Istres was sure of that.”
*This article was first published on July 25