Ralf Rangnick called him a koala, but ask opponents how they would describe Werder Bremen's new midfielder Naby Keita, and cute and cuddly are likely to come some way down the list.
Keita knows the Bundesliga well, following two formative seasons at RB Leipzig between 2016 and 2018. He totalled 58 matches, 14 goals and - most notably - a Himalayan stack of plaudits that propelled him to the summit of the European game and earned him a move to Liverpool.
His two years in Germany tipped the balance of his career towards stardom, but the making of the midfielder who inherited the almost sacred No.8 jersey of Steven Gerrard at Anfield started in the Guinean capital Conakry.
Keita, born on 10 February 1995, joined Horoya AC aged nine, but the instincts that have served him so well were already present much earlier, though often his mother, Miriam, with whom he could be seen selling water on the streets, probably wished at times they hadn't been.
Watch: Keita’s roots - from the streets of Conakry to global stardom
“She has told me that anything that would fall from the table, whether it was a bottle of water or an orange, I would dribble with it. Whatever was on the floor that I could kick, I would entertain myself with it. No matter where she would take me, I would do this. There were a lot of round things to play football with. Unfortunately, there were also things like lampshades, which got broken. My mum always says that shopping with me was very expensive!”
The riches Keita's abilities have now brought have more than offset the damage caused by the havoc he wreaked, but - like so many who reach the top of their profession - there were plenty of other bumps en route to stardom.
After leaving home to go to France as a 16-year-old, Lorient and Le Mans rejected him. “It was more difficult than you could have imagined because everything other than the language was different,” Keita explained of his desperate search for a club that would take a chance on him.
“I did wonder if I would ever make it. It was such a tough time. You have your dream within touching distance, then it falls through and you have to start from the beginning again.”
The lifeline came in the sizeable form of Bobo Balde. The Celtic and Guinea international defender organised a tournament for scouts to come to in Marseille. Keita played, shone, and second division Istres gave him an opportunity that would set him on the road to Leipzig and eventually Liverpool.
Though Istres were relegated, Keita's performances during the 2013/14 campaign were good enough to alert Red Bull Salzburg to his talents. Two seasons in Mozart's home town brought a double domestic double and provided the perfect springboard for Keita to take the step across the border from the Austrian to the German Bundesliga.
Watch: Keita's top 5 Bundesliga goals
Keita has since gone down as one of Leipzig sporting director Rangnick’s most brilliant and insightful moves. The veteran coach went to France to sign Keita for Salzburg, the start of a father-son-like relationship between the pair. “Rangnick told me I was like a koala that you want to hug. He often hugs me,” said Keita. “I don’t know exactly what a koala looks like. In fact, I often fear animals because in Guinea, a lot of them are dangerous.”
The all-action midfielder carries a significant threat of his own, as defences across Germany witnessed first hand in a blistering debut Bundesliga campaign in 2016/17. He scored the only goal of the game in his first league outing – a 1-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 2 that made the footballing community sit up and take notice.
It was the first of eight goals that season, and with Keita contributing a further eight assists in 31 Bundesliga outings, Leipzig finished as runners-up behind Bayern Munich.
Watch: Keita's first Bundesliga goal in Leipzig's first top-flight win
Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp duly took note, hailing his performances as "unbelievable", and a transfer was agreed in summer 2017, although Keita remained in Leipzig for another year.
A further six goals and five assists followed in a trying campaign, with Leipzig doing their best to avoid 'second season syndrome' and eventually ending up in sixth place. Nevertheless, upon leaving for England, Keita reflected on a highly successful time at the Red Bull Arena. "I was able to improve myself and develop here," he said. "Leipzig made me a better player."
Despite various injury setbacks during his five-year stint in England, Keita still managed 129 competitive appearances for Klopp's team. He returns to Germany on a free transfer, and a truckload of winner's medals in tow: the English Premier League (2019/20), FA Cup (2021/22), EFL Cup (2021/22), FA Community Shield (2022), UEFA Champions League (2018/19), UEFA Super Cup (2019) and FIFA Club World Cup (2019).
"We obviously know about Naby from his time in the Bundesliga and continued to follow him in the Premier League," said Bremen's head of scouting and first-team football, Clemens Fritz. "An injury set him back at the start of this season, meaning he didn't get the playing time he wanted. We now want to get him back to his top level."
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