With the 2016/17 campaign finally over, it’s time to reflect. Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio side have fully embraced the tag of underdogs under new management, with the 41-year-old impressing many having only taken over on a permanent basis after Marcelo Bielsa’s shock departure just two days after he was officially appointed last July.
Ciro Immobile’s 23 league goals fired them to a commendable fifth-placed finish, whilst Felipe Anderson and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic excelled with consistent performances throughout the campaign.
However, there is another player whose progress has been intriguing to watch and with a year left on the 22-year-old’s current deal, many of Europe’s top clubs have continued to monitor Keita Baldé’s progress in Italy.
Who is Keita Baldé?
Born to Senegalese parents in the village of Arbúcies in Catalonia, Spain, the youngster has already made 110 appearances in four Serie A seasons to date.
It could’ve been a completely different path for Keita though, having come through the ranks at Barcelona’s highly-esteemed La Masia academy. A practical joke played on a team-mate during a tournament in 2010 saw him punished with a loan spell out to feeder club UE Cornellà and having netted a whopping 47 goals for their youth side, he then turned down the opportunity for a Barca return and prompted interest from Europe’s best clubs.
He joined Lazio in 2011 for €300k and impressed in the youth ranks, but Spanish citizenship and passport issues meant he couldn’t immediately play in the senior side, Keita took his chance once given it by former boss Vladimir Petkovic. Two goals and four assists (all competitions) across 700 minutes of football isn’t a bad tally by any means, and was one which helped Keita build a platform to assert himself as a first-team regular for the future.
Since then, he continues to improve and eye-catching performances in Italy’s top tier help justify the hype surrounding his name.
What is his Style of Play?
Keita is very much a forward who loves to take defenders on and create chances. In recent seasons, he’s gradually becoming more aware of his surroundings and also teeing up team-mates when they are in better goalscoring positions too, although it’s not necessarily supported by his overall statistics.
Thanks to his athleticism and physical frame, Keita is able to burst forward with ease in attack. He doesn’t shy away from tough one-on-one situations against defenders and uses his strength to good effect, making him more of a tricky handful for opponents to nullify once he gets going.
What are his Strengths?
Among his main strengths is his ability to dribble and either change direction or level of pace within an instant. Close-control dribbling gives him the edge over defenders, who are often keen to capitalise on a poor touch for instance, so they’d be caught out by his intelligent movement.
He’ll accelerate past them with ease or decelerate to scan for attacking options in support, like Immobile lurking in the box. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that all but one of Keita’s assists in the league last term were for the 27-year-old Italian, who has benefited from his team-mate’s improved level of decision-making in the final third.
His passing in the right areas has also improved, to a point where he can create opportunities with more regularity across both short and longer distances. He’s not afraid to make a bursting run forward and eventually square the ball unselfishly to a team-mate, or look up and release a probing pass beyond opposition defences either. He created a total of 43 chances, 40 key passes and notched up 555 successful passes last term – all of which are improvements in his game on his previous three seasons as a Lazio player.
He’s able to create match-winning moments and his five minute hat-trick against Palermo in late April set a new record for the fastest three-goal haul in Serie A history.
What are his weaknesses?
In terms of his areas for improvement, there’s still plenty of work to be done before anyone can herald Keita as the finished article yet.
Comparisons will naturally be made to wingers of a similar age and level of ability, though Keita needs to add more goals to his game. 16 in 31 Serie A appearances is an impressive feat, but one that the Senegal international himself will be keen to improve upon in future. His finishing at times lacks conviction and he sometimes decides to pick the wrong shot when through on-goal.
He took 70 shots in total across the 31 matches, averaging just over two every fixture. When you consider his shot accuracy percentage is 56%, it’s important that this only improves as time continues.
In addition to this, there is a belief that he doesn’t consistently perform well against the league’s best sides. Perhaps because they’re good at isolating his threat and double up on him when he’s deployed out on the flanks, he only netted three in six games against Serie A’s top six teams last term (didn’t feature against Atalanta or Juventus).
Prior to last season though, he only managed to create three assists and score two goals in 25 matches against top six opposition since being given his Lazio debut at the start of the 2013/14 campaign. It shows gradual progression whilst also highlighting his struggle for consistency in goal involvement against the best sides.
As for his defensive contribution, it leaves a lot to be desired. Keita doesn’t track back enough and you can tell he’s making a conscious effort to preserve energy for when his team-mates regain possession, to create chances at a quicker rate. In the 31 tackling duels he contested last season, he only won 10 of them. It’s a statistic that isn’t reassuring because he’s susceptible to squandering possession or creating unnecessary pressure on his more defensive-minded team-mates in this manner.
Keita is an unorthodox player and often feels hard done by with the treatment he does receive. It’s important that he remains focused and doesn’t believe in his own hype too much, which is easier said than done when paper talk constantly surrounds your name.
However, you can only hope that he gradually matures and avoids repeating his previous disciplinary issues off the pitch, as it could persuade big clubs not to take a risk on him in future. Often late for training, he’s had heated disagreements with team-mates and managers alike whilst making public his desire to leave Lazio last season, causing unnecessary animosity.
Although he believes he’s good enough to warrant a starting berth, and rightly so, it’s important that he becomes more of a team player if he’s to continue improving. He’s gradually taking steps to achieve this, though it’s very easy for armchair analysts to judge someone based on what they see on a YouTube video. Keita shouldn’t take criticism personally, instead using it as motivation to prove his critics wrong and replicating the tireless workrate shown by M’Baye Niang on his loan move at Watford last season.
Niang is three months older than Keita and similarly, great things were expected of the Frenchman. A range of troublesome injuries and lack of consistency saw his stock fall dramatically in recent years whilst criticism regularly pointed to workrate and attitude whilst on-loan.
In the Premier League though, Niang was a nuisance for defenders to handle and Keita’s capable of doing the same. 31 successful take-ons, the same amount of fouls suffered and nine chances created in 16 matches for the Hornets just highlights how quickly perceptions can change. Time will tell if Keita can continue developing in his quest for success.