With Barcelona going through years of unprecedented success, their players have been praised more than ever by the media and fans alike. Much has been said about the world class talents of Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez over the past few years. While these three are arguably the most talented players of this generation and deservedly get all the praise and accolades, they’re not the sole reason behind Barcelona’s current golden era of domination.
It’s impossible to be as successful as Barcelona have been solely on the basis of their world class superstars. Modest, hard-working squad players who can accept a reduced role and help the team whenever required are also necessary. At FC Barcelona, Seydou Keita is the prime embodiment of this.
The Malian midfielder barely gets any publicity in the media and he’s probably one of the least popular players, even among Barcelona fans; after all, he’s surely the least technically gifted among the club’s midfielders, but he still is (and has been ever since he joined the club) an absolutely crucial member and no one knows this better than Guardiola himself.
Keita was one of Guardiola’s first signings in the summer of 2008 and he has featured in 170 matches since. Only Lionel Messi (187), Xavi Hernandez (183), Daniel Alves (180) and Victor Valdés (175) have racked up more appearances in the Pep Guardiola era. This season, many suspected that with Cesc Fabregas’s arrival and Thiago Alcantara’s emergence, Keita would become surplus to requirements and barely get any minutes, but that hasn’t been the case at all, well on the contrary.
Keita can’t run a game like Xavi, he can’t pick a pass like Fabregas, play one touch football like Busquets, or ghost past players like Iniesta, not even close. It is safe to say that Keita is not outstanding/world class at any particular aspect of his game. But then why does Pep Guardiola trust and appreciate him so much?
The reason is simple – Keita is the perfect squad player. There couldn’t possibly be anyone better for this role. He is aware of his limitations and of his role in the squad and he fully accepts and embraces it. He knows exactly what his role is and he delivers whenever he’s called upon. While he doesn’t have the incredible talent and creativity of Xavi or Iniesta, he’s a very solid player who can put in a quality shift in any midfield position and even at the back, if necessary. He’s a solid passer, he can tackle very well and adds an element of physicality to the Barcelona midfield. He can also chip in with the odd goal, including a header at Levante that secured the La Liga title for Barcelona last season.
For three seasons, Keita was the first alternative to Xavi and Iniesta and he’s now the first alternative to Sergio Busquets, and he has always delivered. Andrés Iniesta’s unfortunate tendency to get injured very often made Keita an even more important player in the past season. He obviously couldn’t fully replace Iniesta, but his solid performances made sure that Barcelona’s midfield remained dominant even in Andrés’ absence.
The most recent example of this was in last season’s first leg of the Champions League semifinals at the Bernabeu. Many believed that José Mourinho would eliminate Barcelona again and with Iniesta sidelined for the first leg that belief was further strengthened. Several analysts singled out Keita as the weak link in Barca’s midfield prior to the game, but they were proven wrong.
The Malian put in a great performance next to Busquets and Xavi in midfield, showing great passing, adding steel to the midfield and helping a lot in defensive tasks, a performance that drew immense praise from Pep Guardiola in the aftermath. Watching that game makes it easy to realize why Keita has played so much in the Guardiola era. He is one of those rare players who accepts a bench role and gives 100% whenever he’s called upon; a player that all managers would like to have.
Guardiola has often praised Keita in his press conferences, stressing his great professionalism and humility. The Barcelona manager once said:
“Whilst I’m manager, Keita will stay, because he’s the most generous footballer I’ve ever known. He deserves everything.”
In 10/20 years, this great Barcelona side will rightly be remembered as the team of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi among other supremely talented players, and few will even remember Keita. But Barcelona fans and everyone who was lucky enough to follow Barca on a weekly basis during this golden era will be fully aware of how important Keita has been. All this success would not have been possible without the contributions of a perfect squad player like Keita.
Hopefully for the Catalan club, Pep Guardiola’s promise will be kept and Keita will stay and eventually retire at Barcelona. The 31-year-old (turning 32 in less than a month) still has a lot to offer on the pitch, with his quality and experience, and he’s a fantastic role model to the La Masia kids going through the ranks. His professionalism, humility and willingness to sacrifice himself for the team are a great example to every young player aspiring to succeed in Barcelona’s first team. The Malian is truly a model professional on and off the pitch.
Seydou Keita is the kind of player who will always fly under the radar and will be underrated by the general public, the majority of whom tend to dismiss the less flamboyant players. But Barcelona owe some of their success to the Malian.
Keita hasn’t just been along for the ride, but has played a crucial role in making this Barcelona team what they are today and has earned a place for himself in the Catalan club’s illustrious history.