Seydou Keita will never generate the amount of shirt sales his more illustrious colleagues do. The Malian international isn’t just a tidy wave-breaker either, as he does an incredible amount of work off-ball. With Barcelona cavorting in a fluid 4-3-3, penetrative gaps for the opposition to expose often appear.
Keita excels in filling this unglamorous space, preventing oppositional counters, and ensuring the more gifted cogs in Pep Guardiola’s machine stay in the warzone.
The 30-year-old is also the master of surprise; making timed ghosts into the box while Lionel Messi and his width-maintaining flankers stretch the defence and draw two zonal markers apiece.
Keita doesn’t necessarily have to receive the ball on these darts. By dragging the second bank of an opposition’s 4-5-1 even deeper, he allows Xavi to pick passes, or the sanguine Gerard Piqué to stride forward.
Inside the box is where the former Marseille midfielder often lets himself down, however. Keita scored just six goals from 39 shots last season, only 10 of which were on target.
Still, he draws a credible two or more fouls per appearance, and this lets others strike a set-piece, or cross for the hulking centre-backs to aerially attack the ball.
With David Villa and Adriano joining the Catalan giants, Barcelona’s left side looks crowded. But towards the end of last season, Keita had nailed down the left-sided midfield berth.
Aided by injuries to Eric Abidal and Andres Iniesta, Keita and Maxwell became first choice picks for Guardiola. Thierry Henry’s persona non grata status meant he, Bojan, and Pedro were rotated in the left-attacker role, one which involved maintaining width.
Resultantly, Maxwell and Keita prowled the inside-left region, Messi all of the final third, and on the rare occasions the left-sided forward cut inside, Keita overlapped or provided cover.
One presumes Adriano is pencilled in to play left back, although judging from the recent World Cup, Maxwell and Abidal won’t be alone in providing his competition.
Martín Cáceres, potentially primed for selling, played there for Uruguay on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, during his 2009/10 loan spell at Juventus, he wound up third in line to the right-back throne behind Jonathan Zebina and Zdeněk Grygera.
Adriano is nothing special defensively mind. As Barcelona beat his Sevilla side towards the end of the bygone campaign, he took to his get tight instructions with too much enthusiasm, inviting the 180° marker-spin from the Barca man on the ball.
Primarily, the attacking positions are where matters get interesting, and the bank in which Guardiola has a real conundrum to solve twice a week.
It’s safe to discard Alexander Hleb from the equation, and Henry has moved to New York. But then just who does he call upon first from Pedro, Villa, Jeffrén, Iniesta, Bojan, Messi, or Zlatan Ibrahimović?
Keita will in all likelihood be used sparingly this season, and Jeffrén, Pedro, Bojan and even Ibrahimović will spend more time on the bench than they’d like.
Money troubles aside, it’s arguable that Camp Nou is preparing to host the finest Barça squad ever assembled. New Real Madrid coach José Mourinho will therefore go down as one of the game’s greats should he manage to thwart them on two fronts.