Helping Monaco forget about Mbappe

Keita Baldé Diao, the Senegalese forward who joined Monaco from Lazio in the summer for €30m, was prepared to be compared with Kylian Mbappé.

“I was expecting it,” he said recently when asked about Mbappé. “We’re both young players. But I’ve come to write my story, to play my game. I don’t want to be compared with anyone. My goal is to play as many matches as possible, to score and provide.”

He is starting to live up to the potential he first showed as a young player in Barcelona.

Born in Spain to Senegalese parents, Keita was picked up by Barcelona’s youth team and became a highly regarded prospect at La Masia. After playing a prank at the club – he put ice cubes in a team-mate’s bed – he was shipped out to fourth-division side Cornella, where he scored tons of goals. He rejected the chance to move back to Barcelona in 2011 and was instead snapped up by Lazio. He blossomed in Rome, scoring 16 goals in Serie A last season – more than Mbappé scored in Ligue 1 – despite playing fewer than 2,000 minutes.

Keita was steeped in the 4-3-3 formation at Barcelona, a tactical approach also used by Senegal. He admits it is the system in which he feels most comfortable, as it gives him the freedom to cut inside from the left while also relieving him of much of his defensive work. However, he has already shown that, like Mbappé, he can use his strong shooting, pace and under-rated physicality to prosper in a number of positions. He has played on both flanks and on his own up top for Monaco, allowing Leonardo Jardim to manage the fitness of Radamel Falcao and Thomas Lemar through rotation and tactical shifts. Keita enjoyed a partnership with Ciro Immobile at Lazio, which suggests he could play alongside Falcao if Jardim opts for the 4-4-2 he preferred last season. Adama Diakhaby partnered Falcao at times earlier in the season in that formation, but the former Rennes man doesn’t offer enough of a goal threat to play up in that role.

It is too early to make any big statements about Keita but he appears to be in Jardim’s first-choice IX, no matter the setup, with Lemar able to play as a No10 if Keita plays on the left. There are concerns about his defensive work ethic – a potentially serious issue given how Porto’s Moussa Marega dominated the attack-minded Jorge when the two clubs met in the Champions League last month – but the same could have been said about Lemar when he arrived from Caen. Jardim has done sterling work in improving Lemar’s all-around play and his hard-nosed approach should also refine Keita’s game. Lemar is not the only player to have improved under Jardim; Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko have all made dramatic improvements at Monaco before moving on.

Keita’s touch can be erratic, but he has shown a willingness, again like Mbappé, to be constantly on the move, even when played as a lone striker. Despite having just a handful of touches on Saturday, he was a constant menace to the slow-footed Bordeaux back-line of Jérémy Toulalan and Igor Lewczuk. Only one of his three shots found the target, but his touch and finish from João Moutinho’s cushioned header was right out of the top drawer. Keita may not be Mbappé, but he is already displaying the same predatory, instinctive style that made the teenager such a sensation last season.

“If you think too much – if you worry – you won’t reach your goals,” he told L’Équipe recently. “I’m a player of instinct; if my body tells me to move right, I move right without thinking.” That instinct can sometimes be wrong or rash – as is the case with many young players – but Keita is brimming with the determination and confidence needed to succeed at this level.

Originally published by the Guardian

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