World Cup One to Watch: Keita Balde – Senegal
The Senegal international has not set the world on fire in Ligue 1, but he might do it in Russia.
Keita Balde Diao made a name for himself off the back of a very successful 2016/17 season with Italian team Lazio.
Overall, the Spanish-born Senegalese international made over 100 appearances for the Rome based club, but failed to make a large impact until his last season there.
In 2016/17, Keita, as he is known, averaged a goal every 120 minutes in the league for Lazio despite starting roughly half of the games. His talent encouraged AS Monaco to acquire his services for a reported €30 million.
Monaco’s history of developing young players before shipping them on to European giants made the transfer something of an easy decision for Keita.
Now, he finds himself on the plane to Russia with Senegal where he will hope to help his team qualify from a group containing Colombia, Poland and Japan. Forming part of an exciting strike force, he will be vital if Senegal are to progress.
In his debut year at the principality club, Keita has divided opinion, dipping in and out of form regularly. For each of his electric performances, he fails to produce the goods for another.
After three goals in his first four starts, for example, the Senegalese went five games with neither a goal nor an assist. A similar pattern emerged after a purple patch midway through the season preceded another short drought.
There is no doubting Keita’s potential, though.
He scored goals against Marseille and Lyon, two of Ligue 1’s big four and is a very composed finisher. Keita ended with eight goals and five assists, which seems a little low considering Monaco’s stature in Ligue 1 and he should hope to press on and bag more next season.
Keita’s injury record impacted his season. He played only 23 league games out of a possible 38 owing to multiple hamstring strains. If Keita can get a full season in the league under the belt, he’ll make a bigger impact in France.
He was often used as a utility player in attack, filling the central void when Radamel Falcao was absent, but settling for a wide position when the Colombian was fit.
This disrupted his arrival at Monaco and made his bedding into the team a little harder. Next season, he will hope for a more permanent position.
Keita has made 16 international appearances so far in his career, at the age of 23. He has only scored three times for the Lions of Teranga which is disappointing. The Monaco-based striker has time on his side, though, and should become a key player for Senegal over the next decade.
He has not scored in a competitive fixture since October 2016, when he netted for Senegal against Cape Verde in a World Cup qualifier. Since then, Keita scored against Congo in a friendly, but has been mute in front of goal since.
National coach Aliou Cisse has typically played Keita on the left of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation or wide in a 4-3-3. When starting, Cisse has often substituted Keita, seeing Sadio Mane and others as more impactful later in the game.
His wide positioning and substitute status can go some way to explaining Keita’s lack of goal return in the national team, but the former Lazio man knows he can improve on his figures.
As mentioned previously, Keita has found himself as Leonardo Jardim’s utility forward in the Monaco squad.
When Thomas Lemar was absent from the left wing, Keita filled in. When Falcao picked up an injury, Keita played centrally. Although it has not allowed the Senegalese to settle fully, it is also a testament to how highly the coach rates him in various positions.
Keita can score no matter where he is deployed. Due to his pace and composure, he excels in one on ones, resulting in him frequently running in behind defenders and latching onto through balls from his midfield.
His biggest attribute is his dribbling ability, however. Keita enjoys taking on defenders and beating them to the byline before crossing back into the box, or taking a shot on.
KEY STAT: Keita completed 30 take-ons in Ligue 1 in 2017/18.
Sometimes, he can be overzealous with it, though, choosing to escape his marker when a simple pass would have been the better option. If Keita can improve his decision making in the final third, it will improve his play to no end.
Another area where Keita must be compensated for is his defensive work. The main difference between him and his countryman Mane is that the Liverpool winger is tireless and supports his left full back throughout the game. Keita’s effort going forward is not in doubt, but he needs to learn how to aid his team at the back, too.
Keita Balde has a great future ahead of him, and it would not be surprising to see him move from Monaco in summer 2019 for a bigger European club. For that to happen, he has to show the world what he can do. His next chance is on the biggest stage of them all.
What impact with Keita Balde have on the World Cup? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.