Keeping it in the family…
Yesterday, RB Leipzig announced the signing of Hungarian international and wunderkind sensation Dominik Szoboszlai from sister club RB Salzburg in Austria. The youngster will join Leipzig in January on a four and a half year deal after the club activated his €25 million release clause. The move is a coup for the new Bundesliga giants, and a disappointment for the clubs also pursuing the Hungarian’s signature.
Szoboszlai is the first big domino to fall of the January transfer window for 2021. January is usually a time where very few big name deals get done, as it is difficult to convince teams to sell their players mid-season while also being difficult to incorporate new players into an existing team during the middle of the season. Despite that, last January saw several massive deals go down, with Bruno Fernandes moving to Manchester United from Sporting Club, Christian Eriksen moving to Inter Milan from Tottenham, and Erling Håland moving to Borussia Dortmund from RB Salzburg being among the biggest of the bunch. Szoboszlai is the first big move in this window, one that was expected due to the Hungarian’s relatively cheap release clause.
What does this move mean for Szoboszlai? For Leipzig? What kind of player are die Roten Bullen getting? Will it make a difference in their pursuit of their first ever Bundesliga title? What does this mean for the other clubs who were pursuing this high-profile player? Let us discuss…
Whatever you make of the morality and sporting ethics behind the Red Bull system and the relationship between Leipzig and Salzburg, you cannot doubt their ability to produce star talents, with Szoboszlai being the next on that list. His move to Leipzig makes quite a bit of sense for him. Not only is he moving to a (relatively) bigger club on a bigger stage, entering a team fixed in a title fight and in the knockout stages of the Champions League, he is taking the next step down the pipeline that has produced a litany of quality players, including his new teammates Marcel Sabitzer, Dayot Upamecano, Konrad Laimer, and Amadou Haidara. Szoboszlai is a brilliant player who is already assembling a highlight reel of brilliant goals and moments, and this move to the Bundesliga will put him on a bigger stage, under brighter lights, and able to demonstrate his talent and ability to the world. The highlight reel player will now have more cameras on him.
He has picked out the ideal team to join footballing-wise. Leipzig are a dynamic attacking team, managed by possibly the brightest young star in football management in Julian Nagelsmann. They are a team that, quite simply, scores plenty of goals and plays an attractive brand of football, ideal for a dynamic and dangerous player like Szoboszlai. Systemically, while Nagelsmann has moved away from the traditional Red Bull 4-2-2-2, the mantra of quick, attacking football still exists. Even without the traditional Red Bull formation, the youngster still fits in well for Leipzig. For Salzburg, Szoboszlai often played on the left side in the Red Bull 4-2-2-2, drifting inside onto his stronger right foot. For Hungary, he plays as a creative number 10 in the middle of the pitch. This experience works ideally for Leipzig and Nagelsmann, who utilize a combination of a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1, both having an ideal space open for the Hungarian. In their 3-4-2-1, which is their most-used formation, their front three usually is composed of two more creative players behind a “pivot”, either a target-man striker, like Yussuf Poulsen or Alexander Sørloth, or another creative player acting as a false nine. The 4-2-3-1 is a similar idea, with three creative attacking midfielders playing behind a “pivot”, which is, again, either a target-man striker or a false nine midfielder. Szoboszlai will fit in with the two creative midfielders in the 3-4-2-1, which were usually some combination of Dani Olmo, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, and Christopher Nkunku. Szoboszlai is able to play on the left side of that pairing, which puts him in a similar role to where he played for Salzburg. In the 4-2-3-1, he is able to fit into the middle or left side of the attacking three, which is, again, similar to where he played for Salzburg and Hungary. He seems to fit into the team like a glove.
There will be some slight tactical adjusting. Playing off of one target man as compared to a strike partnership at Salzburg, his utilization in build up will be more different, much more central than at Salzburg and less of cutting inside on his right foot. He also has to work with an overlapping wing back, with Angeliño bombing up the left side much more than the fullbacks at Salzburg would. These are small differences, and I still believe that Szoboszlai will fit in well tactically, but these are small things that will be around Szoboszlai on the pitch, slight differences that he will have to get to terms with immediately.
From a Leipzig perspective, the biggest concern about Szoboszlai is his consistency. Some have described him as a player who is equally likely to make a brilliant, match-defining moment as he is to go completely missing in a match. I saw another person describe him as someone good for two to three moments a match, then nothing else for the remainder of the 90 minutes. Usually, some of these claims are blown out of proportion, and people tend to throw around “lack of effort” to explain star players struggling, but to be fair, there are some instances where Szoboszlai has gone missing and, for instance, has not put in his share of the defensive duty. These are not damning traits for a player, however, and it is something that can be removed from the game of a young player as he develops and matures. In moving to Leipzig, he is now in a team surrounded by a higher level of talent to work off of during a match. He also has a significant amount of competition for his place, meaning his star power alone is not enough to keep him in the team. He is now working with an experienced manager in Nagelsmann who can nurture him from an inconsistent but talented young player to a true top talent. He needs to buy in, though, and while I have seen no signs that he will not do so, these concerns are still relevant.
Tactically, despite some issues, a move for Szoboszlai seems to work perfectly. He is able to play on the left and drift in toward the middle of the pitch as the other Leipzig creative players are able to do, and he can offer a level of aggression and one-on-one attacking ability that the likes of Forsberg and Nkunku cannot. He also poses a significant attacking threat by himself, as his ability to score from distance will draw the attention of defenders and help create opportunities for his teammates. It is safe to say that players moving within the Red Bull family are not going to be left out at sea by moving into a completely different tactical set up, but even with the changes Nagelsmann has made since his arrival, Szoboszlai still fits in perfectly with what the young German manager wants to do.
Despite Leipzig winning the race for the youngster, Szoboszlai was a very sought-after player, so I will spare a quick thought for the teams that lost out in the race for the Hungarian’s signature. There were seemingly three other main contenders in this duel: Milan, Real Madrid, and Arsenal. Milan tried and failed to sign Szoboszlai last summer, while Real Madrid and Arsenal were at least enquiring about a possible deal. With the Hungarian now off the market and seemingly no major competition with Leipzig for the deal, it does show a lot about the priorities of the other clubs involved.
Milan likely sensed that they missed their chance last summer, as the top priority of the club since then has been agreeing contract extensions with key players, including current attacking midfielder Hakan Çalhanoglu, who would have likely been replaced by Szoboszlai had a transfer been agreed. While not as talented as Szoboszlai, the Turkish international has been fantastic for Pioli’s Milan, being a key contributor in a Rossoneri team that could at least find their way back into the Champions League next season, if not win a Scudetto this season. It is a miss for Milan, but their self-control is understandable. Things are finally going well for the club after years of financial and sporting turmoil. They do not want to rock the boat before they make it back to the Champions League and receive the much-needed financial windfall that comes with it.
Real Madrid were likely never serious contenders. Most top young talents are inevitably linked with clubs of the gargantuan size as Los Blancos, but this was never a deal that was going to happen. The club has invested in Martin Ødegaard to be the creative midfielder for the future, and the board likely have still held back all transfer funds for deals next summer, when Kylian Mbappé and Eduardo Camavinga, among others, could become available. No doubt that Real Madrid are in need of some creativity and goalscoring threat, but this was never a deal they would have seriously considered.
And then we come to Arsenal. There probably is not a major club on the planet that could have used a player of Szoboszlai’s caliber more than Arsenal. Desperately in need of some form of creative dynamism, anything to make the incessant crossing stop, a move for the Hungarian would have made perfect sense for Arsenal, especially given the relatively cheap price tag. The move did not materialize, obviously, and it seems that both sides did have their hesitations. For Szoboszlai, it does not seem controversial to think that a move to league title-contending and Champions League-constant Leipzig made much more sense than a move to a horrendously struggling Arsenal team. While he would start and be among the star players in both teams, it makes more sense for a young player to go to the better situation, which definitely is not Arsenal, in order for their progression and growth to not be hindered. On the other side, there were reports that Arsenal had doubts over the player’s defensive work rates. Again, these concerns are not unfair, but it did seem like Arsenal may have taken too much interest in those concerns and possibly turned down the exact player they need to fix their attacking woes. Whatever the case may be, it never seemed like Arsenal were truly in the running. Moving forward, should Arsenal remain in the Premier League next season (which they probably will but you never know), they will likely try for a serious move in the summer for a creative player, with Lyon’s Houssem Aouar likely being their dream target. With several major contracts expiring in the summer, including Mesut Özil’s much-discussed contract, Arsenal should feel more liberated financially, able to make a major move to improve the team, should a major move be available for them.
So how will this move work out? Personally, I am a big fan of Szoboszlai as a player. I like his confidence, a trait that is very important for a player in his position. He never looks afraid to take on a defender or play a risky pass or take a shot from distance, and that confidence will be important for him to hit the ground running at Leipzig. Working with a manager as talented as Julian Nagelsmann will allow the player to grow and mature into a consistent talent. He slots into that Leipzig team perfectly, being the ideal eventual replacement for aging club stalwart Emil Forsberg and an ideal piece that can rotate into the team alongside the likes of Forsberg, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku. Will he have the impact for Leipzig that his former Salzburg teammate Erling Håland is having for Dortmund? Probably not, but it is at least worth remembering that Szoboszlai was considered one of the two diamonds of that Salzburg team alongside Håland, and he has a considerable amount of natural talent. It is possible that he blossoms into a superstar in the Bundesliga, but I do not think it will be to the degree and immediacy of Håland’s rise.
Regardless, this deal makes Leipzig much better at little cost to them. Having already lost Timo Werner and potentially losing Dayot Upamecano this summer, it seems like the window for Leipzig to win the Bundesliga is beginning to close. Making a move like this could be the difference between Leipzig winning their first ever Meisterschale and losing out to Bayern Munich once again. Leipzig are already a very good team, they probably did not need to sign Szoboszlai, but it is a move that makes them much better and could be the tipping point in their season. It is very rare in this post-Neymar-to-PSG transfer market that you get the opportunity to sign a potentially world class talent for a cut rate fee, and when you find chances like that, you take them without thinking. Leipzig did just that with this move.
And they benefitted from their ability to keep him in the family…
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