He was one of the Bundesliga’s biggest sensations of 2016/17: a midfielder whose repute has rocketed with RB Leipzig’s spectacular rise during the recently completed campaign.
Midfielder Naby Keita arrived at the Saxony-based side from FC Salzburg to minimal fanfare last year yet the Guinean now draws worldwide attention, delighting fans with his wonderful vision, tantalising technique and dexterous dribbling.
In an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, Keita speaks about Leipzig’s remarkable second-place Bundesliga finish, the secrets behind the club’s success and his eagerness to play in the UEFA Champions League.
bundesliga.com: Naby Keita, when you moved from Salzburg last summer, did you ever imagine such a remarkable turn of events in your first Bundesliga season?
Naby Keita: Of course not; this is like a dream! We enjoyed a really great season but it sits well with us. With each game we won, our confidence grew that much more. Our initial goal was to achieve top-flight safety as soon as possible. We succeeded brilliantly and by finishing second, we can of course feel more than satisfied. But we don’t want to sit back now. We will continue to progress and ride this wave of success for as long as possible.
Watch: Highlights of Leipzig's dramatic final day draw at Eintracht Frankfurt:
bundesliga.com: Would finishing in seventh or eighth, as opposed to runners-up, have been a disappointment?
Keita: We felt we were on a very good path and finishing [in those places] would not have been what we hoped for at a certain moment. We wanted to defend our second position for as long as possible. As newcomers to the Bundesliga, we never thought about the title or the Champions League until the end. We wanted to fulfil our maximum potential each matchday and to win as many games as possible. I think we succeeded in those aspects very well.
bundesliga.com: Is it your goal now to embark on a journey of discovery into the Champions League with RB Leipzig?
Keita: Absolutely; that will be great. However, we didn’t talk about the Champions League until shortly before the end of the season; this wasn’t an issue in the dressing room. We kept our focus on the Bundesliga. Our modesty in this aspect and the fact that we were highly diligent until the last minute were decisive.
bundesliga.com: The knockout stages of this season’s Champions League produced some spectacular games and results. Did watching that enhance your desire to play in the tournament?
Keita: Sure. However, we remain grounded in this aspect. The fact that we managed to qualify directly for the group stage of the Champions League is fantastic for our club. Our team is young, hungry and very ambitious.
bundesliga.com: Is this grand European adventure not arriving too early for a young team such as yours?
Keita: It will certainly be a big change with so many midweek matches to play but we are really keen to discover what the Champions League is all about. Every player dreams of playing in it and we will do everything in our power to make a difference in the tournament.
bundesliga.com: What do you see as being the key to Leipzig’s success last season?
Keita: We are united at all levels of the club while there is a lot of fun and enjoyment in our training sessions. We arrive at training every day with smiles on our faces. You can see that fun represented in our playing style too. We play very high up the field and press our opponents hard from there. We are technically very strong. Also, within our group are players who – for the most part – haven’t won titles, so there is huge motivation there.
Keita: Not for a second; which also shows how strong our collective morale is. Everyone at the club, be they the coach or the management, always stressed that such a phase was simply part of our development and that we shouldn’t stick our heads in the sand. We remained strong together and the cohesion and team spirit are great strengths in our team.
bundesliga.com: How important was Ralph Hasenhüttl in those moments?
Keita: Our coach attaches great importance to communication. He talks regularly with us in the good times and the bad. He is also always willing to listen. After those two defeats you mentioned, he spoke calmly with us, saying that we simply needed to keep working and that there was no reason for us to lose our heads, that what we were going through was simply a learning process for our young team.
bundesliga.com: There is talk of a contract extension and possibly becoming Leipzig's best-paid player. How does that make you feel?
Keita: I really don’t worry about such things. My only focus is on our games and my performances; they are the most important things. I am a young player who never cares about rumours or what appears in the newspapers. I am now looking forward to a well-earned holiday and then to next season.
Naby Keita was talking with Alexis Menuge