Born in Catalonia to Sengalese parents, Keita Baldé is the La Masia graduate who, well, didn’t exactly graduate. Considering his misunderstood badboy demeanour coupled with his undeniable talent, let’s just call him The College Dropout. (If you didn’t get the Kanye reference, you might as well give up here. It only gets worse.)
Approaching his 16th birthday, Keita set up a practical joke on a team-mate during a tournament and was then ‘punished’ by Barcelona…with a loan spell out to their feeder club UE Cornellà. (Don’t ask.The whole scenario is absurd.) Keita, well beyond this level, netted a whopping 47 goals for their youth side. As a result, Barça beckoned for their little Maravilla, or as he was known, Keitinha, to come home, but instead, he saw this as disrespect, a betrayal by his boyhood team, and left for Lazio, who paid a measly €300k gratuity for him.
Spanish citizenship and passport issues meant he couldn’t immediately play in the senior side, but a year after signing, Petkovic gave the wonder boy 700 minutes in his first full season, and the 18-year-old grabbed two goals and four assists. It was a decent return for a struggling Lazio side, and since then, it’s been a real mixed bag for the now not-so-little Keitinha.
Fast forward three seasons of mismanagement and misbehaviour, 22-year-old Keita is up on stage beside Pep Guardiola, after winning the best Catalan player of the 2016/17 season, with an overwhelming 48% of the vote (Pep of course claimed the managerial equivalent). It seems his promise is finally being fulfilled. This isn’t the first time Keita has been recognised officially, winning the Serie A young player of the year for 2015/16, and this year claiming a place, albeit on the bench, in the team of the season for Serie A 16/17.
The boy wonder has come leaps and bounds in the right direction under coach Pippo Inzaghi, who helped develop Keita at the youth level when he landed in Rome four years ago. It seems Keita has finally found a coach who understands his strengths and is willing to build a side around them.
However, not all is rosy. The successful season hasn’t stopped Balde’s ongoing feud with the club, with the Senegalese forward having at least three public outbursts in his four years with the senior side.
A Lazio correspondent for ESPN claimed in 2016: “Many of Keita’s teammates cannot stand his attitude. He once had a fight with Bosnian midfielder Senad Lulic during a training session, and the captain Lucas Biglia told him to change his ways.”
This constant feud, coupled with his deal expiring at the end of the 2017/18 season, has forced Lazio’s hand, and they are certain to cash in on him this summer. At a humble price (in this market) of €30m, the watchful eye of the Juventini is once again preying on one of Italy’s brightest talents.
Having established himself as one of Serie A’s eminent attackers, Keita is a forward who takes on defenders at will, brimming with swagger and freedom as he creates chance after chance. It’s not unfair to call him selfish, or at least individualistic, but since Ciro Immobile made his triumphant return to Serie A, you can see a new understanding between Keita and his teammates.
Now, Keita picks his head up more to find those in better areas than himself, as you’d expect from a La Masia product. All but one of Keita’s assists in the league last term were for the 27-year-old Italian, who has benefited from his teammate’s improved decision-making in the final third, while Keita himself has benefited from having a quality CF to make runs off and combine with. His newfound associative ability might indicate a lack of trust in his previous teammates and perhaps in a better side, Keita will be happy to relieve himself of some responsibility and trust others more.
At 6’, Keita is well-built, but there is room to bulk up without hindering speed and his excellent close control. Not dissimilar to a young Cristiano Ronaldo, and, perhaps unfortunately, the boy is very aware of this. Keita is, to put it nicely, extremely confident in his own ability and judgment. Often a sign of greatness, but also of folly when misplaced.
You will frequently see Balde stationary by the halfway line when his team are in defensive transition, preserving his energy for when HE leads the team in counter. And yes, it’s very important that it is he who spearheads the attack. Pippo Inzaghi recognised this and even utilised him 8 times as CF last season, mostly against bigger sides in an effort to sit back and counter. With his large frame and blistering pace, the boy can win long balls himself too despite not being particularly strong aerially, a hodgepodge of skillsets useful for any side with a flexible system. Keita is a versatile forward who can retain width, yet also drop into central areas when asked. Yes Allegri, we’re looking at you, and now we understand why you’re looking at him.
Before last season, the one real strength you’d have spotted in Keita would be his change of pace and strong dribbling ability. It is not just ‘kick and run’, which in itself is an effective skill that tallies up dribbling statistics on Whoscored and Squawka, but Keita has real technical quality–lightning feet, if you will. As they say in Spain, his “pegada” gives him the edge over defenders, who are often coached to capitalise on mistakes or anticipate a poor touch, and as such, are often caught out by his intelligent movement.
In England, or any other country for that matter, I would expect him to win many penalties. In the past 3 Serie A seasons, Keita ranks 12th for take-ons completed. Of his 146 take-ons, 52 came last season in his true coming-of-age year. With a 55% success rate, Keita is a player who can regularly beat his opposing number, with increasing frequency, having 2.52 dribbles per 90 last term.
Before his 21st birthday, Keita had scored a paltry 10 goals in his first 81 appearances in Serie A. However, he wasn’t a mainstay in the side, his minutes played totaled just 49 full games. What was worrying however, was that his conversion rate stood at 8.3%. Whether it was a tactical switch in bringing the player more central, to play off his strike partner Ciro Immobile, or that Keita focused more to improve technique and composure to secure a move away, this season, he has been far more clinical. His conversion rate now stands at a very healthy and impressive 30.6% (Europe’s elite forwards peter around the 35% mark) as he combined with Ciro Immobile for 37 goals last term.
Only one of Keita’s eight league assists were to someone other than Ciro, again indicating a strong understanding between the two, but also highlighting Keita’s trust in a proven goalscorer. Of his 15 league goals, only two were with his weaker foot. While he is still strong with both feet, he must improve, as using both feet to pass and receive is a priority among many European giants.
His passing in the final third has also improved, and he can create opportunities across both short and longer distance, a far cry from his days as a teenager. This season, he created a total of 43 chances and 40 key passes in 28 starts this season. He prefers to burst forward and cut back, but he has shown this season that he can test the opposition’s backline with a line-splitting pass.
Over the past season, Balde Keita has developed into a real match winner for his side. His five minute hat-trick against Palermo in late April set a new record for the fastest three-goal haul in Serie A history, beating the record set by Anastasi for Juventus 42 years ago, which, ironically, was against Lazio.
Now, I may have sold this game-changer as the second coming of Ronaldo, but it’s only fair to discuss the multiple weaknesses Keita has that have caused Europe’s top clubs to hold off on getting out the check book for him.
16 goals in 31 Serie A appearances is fantastic for a 22 year old, but when you realize this total topped that of his previous three seasons combined, you begin to wonder if he can replicate this going forward – especially seeing as he’s intent of leaving a coach who has finally made it work for him. His finishing is erratic, at times lacking in conviction, and his shot selection is questionable. Given that he is a player who tends to cut inside, he seems to lack the finesse that say, his compatriot Sadio Mané possesses. He took 70 shots across 31 matches, with 38 hitting the target. Shot quantity and quality is crucial for forwards, and averaging just over one shot on target per game is unacceptable for a player of Keita’s ability. Sure, in a more dominant side, Keita will get more opportunities, but it’s up to him to step up and ensure he finds the same regularity he did last term.
Keita netted three goals in six games against Serie A’s top six teams, as he did not feature against neither Juventus nor Atalanta. This is a reasonably good return but again, it took him the previous 3 terms altogether to reach the same number. How do we know this wasn’t a super season where all fell into place for Keita, as it was for Hatem Ben Arfa during his season at Nice? Sure, Keita is 7 years younger and certainly doesn’t have the fitness and physical condition concerns that have hounded Hatem his entire career, but he does have some of the attitude issues that prevented the former French international from reaching his potential.
Now, it’s time for the elephant in the room. The complaint you will most often hear about Keitinha is his commitment and focus, not only due to his off-the-field unprofessionalism, but also through his defensive contribution, or shall we say, lack of it. This leads to comparisons with Mario Balotelli (I’m sorry, we couldn’t avoid this. As with all wasted talent conversations, we have to have the Balotelli talk), and even less flatteringly, M’Baye Niang, who possessed similar attributes to Keita, yet spent last season with Premier League minnows Watford.
As mentioned earlier, Keita often plays as if he is above the team, frequently leaving his man in order to prepare to counter. Inzaghi has him working harder, but with just 10 of his 31 attempted duels being successful, it’s clear there’s a lot of work to do, especially if leaves for Juventus, where defensive transition as a unit is crucial to build-up play.
Balde Keita has often received disciplinary action from Lazio for unprofessional behavior; only recently was he fined for flying to Catalonia to celebrate his birthday and not returning on time for training – this wouldn’t be so bad if it was a single occurrence, but he often arrives late for practice. Keita has now demanded to leave in successive summers, and even missed parts of the team’s preseason camp before his breakout year last season. He claimed to be injured ahead of the season’s first game at Atalanta, even though the medical team declared him fit. Simone Inzaghi questioned his attitude and Keita responded publicly: “I won’t let anyone doubt my word.” (Can you see the Balotelli in him yet?)
Keita’s contract with Lazio expires at the end of June 2018, and Premier League vultures are picking at his equivocally low asking price of €30m, with West Ham said to have already met the fee. (Yes, this is whom they’ve chosen to punch above their weight with this summer.)
A return to Barcelona was previously mooted, but the recall of Gerard Deulofeu should tick the Catalan quota for Barça for now (and don’t be surprised if Keita is still bitter of how his youth career ended. If anything, the kid is proud). It is likely that the Premier League’s top six clubs will continue to monitor Keita, with Spurs currently linked, but it seems the player has conquering Italy and completing this chapter on his mind, with moves to either Milan club and Juventus stoking the most smoke in the media.
Juventus’ cancellation of the transfer of Patrick Schick due to fitness concerns have opened the door to Keitinha to be the next super talent to don the Bianconeri shirt. Perhaps it would be in the best interests of Keita to join a club where a regular starting place may be easier to come by, but as we’ve said, this is a player of supreme confidence, and I expect him to relish the challenge of competing with new man Douglas Costa and Mario Mandžukic for the starting berth.
One thing is certain; you need strong characters in management to contain strong characters in the dressing room, but as we’ve seen many a time, large egos can often collide cause locker room drama. If he is to join Juventus, there could be a bust up of bigger proportions than seen earlier this year between Leonardo Bonucci and Massimo Allegri, because as we know, ‘Keïta will not have his word questioned.’
If he can put his head down and take advice from his superiors, Keitinha could develop into a world class superstar and become the unpredictable outlet Juventus need to end their Champions League sorrows, providing much-needed width and slotting right into a group that is as versatile, adaptable and talented as he is.
The Old Lady is looking to bring in fresh blood, and this one will undoubtedly stir the pot. A livewire with a personality not seen at the Juventini since the departure of Pogba. Explosive, but destructive, Keita is dynamite striker with the braggadocio to match his pace. This summer, the boy will decide whether he’s ready to light up the scene, or implode cataclysmically. Regardless of the outcome, keep your eyes on Balde Keita.
Photo by: @DanielHardman