Keen observers of European football over the last few years will have noticed the progress that the Red Bull group of clubs have been making, both in terms of player development as well as their own competitiveness in their respective leagues, as well as the UEFA Champions League. The presence of a unified style of play and an overarching process across all the clubs means that coaches, as well as players, are able to seamlessly move from one club in the group to another without encountering too many issues.
This has most notably been seen with Ralf Rangnick, who has served as director of football for the entire group in two spells between 2012 and 2020, while also being head coach at RB Leipzig twice during this time. Gerhard Struber went from managing Red Bull Salzburg’s age-group sides to head coach at FC Liefering, which is also owned by Red Bull and is a feeder club for Salzburg, and is now manager at New York Red Bulls, via spells at Wolfsberger and Barnsley.
The current Salzburg manager, Jesse Marsch, has also come through the ‘system’ as such, having managed New York Red Bulls and then served as assistant to Rangnick at Leipzig, before entering his current job at Salzburg. It has been a similar case with players as well – the likes of Peter Gulacsi, Dayot Upamecano, Naby Keïta, Konrad Laimer, Hannes Wolf and Amadou Haidara have all made the switch from Salzburg to Leipzig, with some then moving on to newer pastures, as in the case of Keita’s move to Liverpool. Others, such as Erling Haaland and Sadio Mané, have made the switch directly from Salzburg to another club, but this shows how proficient the Austrian club have been at unearthing and polishing promising coaching and playing talent.
The next big one out of the Salzburg ranks is Hungarian playmaker Dominik Szoboszlai. The 20-year-old will be sold in the January window, according to Marsch, and the likes of AC Milan and Arsenal have been credited with an interest. However, it is almost certain that Szoboszlai will be making the switch across the border to Germany and Leipzig, like many before him, and he is expected to take the Bundesliga by storm, similar to how Haaland arrived at Dortmund this January. We expect the Hungarian to be one of the most-watched and discussed players in 2021, and this scout report will attempt to detail his style of play and strengths and weaknesses.
Playing and statistical profile
Despite having just turned 20-years-old, Szoboszlai has already shown that he can shoulder the creative burden for both club and country, memorably scoring the last-minute goal which sent Hungary through to the European Championships next year. He is an attacking midfielder, capable of playing across the width of the pitch in support of a central striker, but has usually been deployed on the left, either as a winger or as a playmaker as part of a duo in the 3-4-2-1 system frequently used by Marsch. His heatmap for this season so far shows his preference for the left-sided areas of the pitch –
Szoboszlai is very much a modern playmaker, in that he is heavily involved in the defensive side of the game as well as looking to create opportunities for his teammates. Of course, this is a non-negotiable for players under Marsch at Salzburg, who plays a very aggressive pressing system on most occasions.
In possession, he will usually drop deep and look to link up with the deeper players to keep the ball moving at a high tempo, while he comes into his own once the attack progresses higher up the pitch, capable of finding teammates with a range of passes from anywhere on the pitch.
He is also extremely dangerous from set-pieces, putting dangerous balls into the box for his teammates to attack from corners and wide free-kicks, while he has already earned fame for some of his own goals from direct free-kicks. It would also be instructive to look at the Hungarian’s statistics this season to get an idea of his playing style.
At the time of writing, Szoboszlai had played 1,800 minutes in all competitions for club and country this season, scoring 10 goals at a goals/90 rate of 0.5, with eight assists at a rate of 0.4/90. This gives him an overall goal contribution rate of 0.9/90 this season, which is incredible for an attacking midfielder. For comparison, he averaged 0.64 goals and assists per 90 minutes last season, so this is an increase of more than 40% in terms of goal contribution output thus far in this campaign. Some regression to the mean can be expected, but nevertheless, these are impressive numbers, and are backed up by expected goals as well. Szoboszlai has scored his 10 goals from an xG of 7.53 so far, while he has an xA value of 8.65.
This can be explained by the fact that Szoboszlai has scored some goals from long-range, which would have very low xG values, but he is also the designated penalty taker for Salzburg, which goes some way to show why his goal output is this high. At the same time, he is marginally underperforming his xA tally, suggesting that his teammates could perhaps be doing better with the chances he is creating for them.
He is certainly not a prolific shot-taker, having taken three shots per 90 so far this season, which is in line with last season’s number of 2.91. He is also not someone who gets into the box a lot, as the heat map shows, having averaged just 2.5 touches/90 in the penalty area so far this season. Despite a tendency to drop deep and recycle possession, he does usually look for the forward pass – more than 27% of his passes this season have been forward passes, albeit with an accuracy of just over 65%, showing how he does have a tendency to go for riskier passes.
Overall, the Hungarian is a clinical, dynamic presence in the final third, looking to create opportunities for his teammates as quickly as possible, but also comfortable at recycling possession when needed. We will now look at his traits and style of play, both in and out of possession, to get a better idea of his playing style.
As stated earlier, Szoboszlai is adept at picking up the ball and moving it on to a teammate quickly in order to retain possession, rather than looking for the killer pass always. His movement aids him in this regard – the Hungarian usually looks to drop deep to receive the ball from the central midfielders or even the centre-backs, before quickly laying it off and turning to run back upfield. This is something he does for both club and country, regardless of whether he is fielded out wide or centrally.
In this example, he drops deep from a central position high up the pitch, dragging a Serbian player with him, and lays off the ball to the centre-back with his first touch, opening the space up behind him for a progressive pass or run by a teammate.
He does not just do this in deeper areas of the pitch – Szoboszlai often drops off the defensive line to receive the ball with his back to goal, with the intention of either laying it off quickly if he has been followed by a defender, or to turn and pass or run if he has the space to do so.
In this pair of images, we see how he is able to manufacture space for himself by doing so. Szoboszlai drops off the Sturm Graz centre-backs in the first image when his teammate plays the pass. If the defender follows him, this would create room in behind the defensive line for the Salzburg attackers to exploit. The defender stays in line; however, this then gives the Hungarian time and space to turn and pick his pass, with two Salzburg attackers making runs on either side of him.
Another example from Hungary, where, noticing that there is already a teammate in space between the lines, Szoboszlai instead chooses to drop to give his teammate a shorter passing option, in order to retain possession and then potentially find someone making a run from a deeper position.
Szoboszlai is also good at recognising when there is space on the opposite side of the pitch, especially when Salzburg have created an overload on one side. This is then the trigger for the Hungarian to try and attempt a switch of play to isolate a teammate in a 1v1 situation with an opposition defender – he definitely has the passing range to pull this off more often than not, even if it may not always come off.
Note how there are eight Admira players on the left side of the field during this spell of Salzburg possession, which is the perfect moment for Szoboszlai to switch the ball to the right-back, who is in a lot of space.
A similar situation, this time against Sturm Graz. Szoboszlai is in a more central position, but his positioning, combined with that of his teammates, has served to attract six opposition players towards them, leaving a Salzburg player free at the edge of the box. Unfortunately, the Hungarian’s pass was intercepted in this instance, but it is encouraging that he had the vision to see this situation developing.
Runs in behind the midfield/defence
Szoboszlai is not as one-dimensional as this, only looking to drop deep to link play or spreading it wide. He also does make runs in behind midfield and defensive lines when needed, often during Salzburg counter-attacks. The 20-year-old is extremely adept at finding space and exploiting it, often making runs from deep which catch opponents unaware and thus lead to him receiving the ball in space.
Here, he has made an untracked run from midfield which will lead to him receiving the ball on the edge of the penalty area
In terms of his ability to make dangerous passes, the Hungarian is aided by his superb ability from dead-ball situations. A number of his assists over the last couple of seasons have been from corners and free-kicks, and the Hungarian is usually able to find his teammates in the penalty area with inch-perfect passes and crosses from such situations. He is also a threat from free-kicks himself, having scored a couple of memorable goals already for club and country from dead-ball situations.
Oddly enough, this is a chance that was missed, but it is the perfect example to show how Szoboszlai was able to put the ball in the perfect area for the Salzburg defender to attack.
This is one of the goals which has already made Szoboszlai a talking point among football fans, coming from a free-kick nearly 40 yards out against Turkey, where he found the top corner with power.
Goals and assists
This prowess from set-pieces does add goals and assists to the Hungarian’s tally, but he is perfectly capable of doing so from open play as well. Szoboszlai has made a name for himself as a very dangerous player on the ball from distance, and although this is usually a low-percentage option for most players, the Hungarian has already shown his ability at finding the net from distance this season.
Another goal which has been making waves this year, this time in the Champions League against Lokomotiv Moscow. Szoboszlai’s technique is notable here, as he hits the ball with the outside of his boot to cause it to swerve out, away from the keeper and towards the far corner, going into the net off the underside of the bar.
Szoboszlai’s crowning moment, arguably, this season was his goal in stoppage time in the EURO qualifying playoff against Iceland which sent the country through to next year’s tournament. While the strike from distance itself was clean, what preceded it was nearly as remarkable, as the playmaker ran with the ball at his feet from his own half to the edge of the opposition penalty area to score.
This is where he picks up the ball, having run to the left from a central position in his own half when the Hungary counter-attack began…
…and this is where he ended up shooting from just over five seconds later, having carried the ball at pace.
As stated earlier, he is also adept at finding teammates in the box with a variety of passes from open play, and it is his movement which allows him to get into the position to make those passes in the first place.
Here, it is almost akin to a set-piece, where Szoboszlai is able to send in a cross to the Salzburg striker for him to put a header into the bottom corner.
In this situation, the Hungarian has gone to the flank and pulls the ball back for his onrushing teammate to run onto and score with his first touch.
These are just a couple of examples which show his clinical passing and ability to create goalscoring opportunities for teammates.
We will now look at Szoboszlai’s work off the ball, since it is an integral part of his game, having come through the Salzburg system where pressing is extremely important.
Out of possession
Watching Szoboszlai off the ball, it is apparent that he is extremely intelligent and knows how to work in a co-ordinated pressing system. He is also capable of recognising developing situations himself and taking action to snuff out danger where needed, which makes him excellent for any team which looks to defend in an active manner, rather than sitting back and inviting the opposition onto them.
This is an excellent example of his ability to work in a pre-defined system. Salzburg are attempting to stop Lokomotiv Moscow from progressing the ball centrally, forcing them to pass wide, which will be the pressing trigger for them to then try and retrieve possession. Here, Szoboszlai is cutting off the pass to the Lokomotiv player behind him through his cover shadow, while simultaneously discouraging the pass to the player he is immediately marking. The Salzburg attacker is running towards the Lokomotiv centre-back on the ball to force him to pass quickly, and this has created a situation where only a pass out wide is possible.
That is exactly what happens, and Szoboszlai is then able to try and intercept the pass. He is unsuccessful, but continues to press the Lokomotiv wide man, eventually forcing a throw-in, which shows his tenacity and willingness to work out of possession for the benefit of the team.
This can also be seen at times when he chases back to win the ball, especially if Salzburg are on the risk of being exposed to a counter-attack.
Salzburg lose the ball here, and Admira are looking to counter-attack. Szoboszlai, though, has other ideas…
The Hungarian chases back and commits a tactical foul near the halfway line to stop this developing counter-attack, which could have developed into 4v3 for Admira if it had been allowed to proceed.
As mentioned earlier, Szoboszlai is also extremely intelligent, constantly scanning his surroundings to see where the danger is, and this allows him to often be in the right place to nip attacks in the bud.
Here, Benjamin Pavard makes a run upfield just as Leon Goretzka is about to get on the ball for Bayern – a development that Szoboszlai spots…
…and then runs back to cut out the pass, setting up a Salzburg attack in the process.
Thus, we can see that the 20-year-old is a willing runner, able to take tactical instructions on board with regard to pressing, and also has the intelligence to notice developing attacks. All of this make him excellent while his team is out of possession, which is almost a required trait of modern playmakers.
The stats show how active he is while defending as well. Szoboszlai has averaged 3.45 interceptions per 90 so far this season, with 5.4 recoveries, of which 57% come in the opposition half, displaying how is a vital cog in Salzburg’s high press.
It is almost inevitable that a 20-year-old attacking midfielder will have some areas to work on his game. With regard to Szoboszlai, he can improve his passing, both in terms of timing as well as choosing the right pass. He often gives the ball away by attempting a risky pass in the final third, while he is also not quite as accurate as one would hope over longer distances, especially when he is playing the ball over the opposition’s defensive line for a forward to chase. This can be coached and improved through practice and repetition on the training ground, however, and at 20 years of age, the Hungarian has a lot of time to develop this particular facet of his game.
Dominik Szoboszlai is rightly being hailed as the next wonderkid out of the Salzburg system, and with good reason. His skill-set is quite well-rounded, as he is able to contribute both defensively and offensively, while he also has a penchant for the spectacular, having scored some superb goals this season already. With RB Leipzig set to sign him, it will be extremely interesting to see how he fares in the Bundesliga against theoretically-tougher opponents. However, he has already shown in the Champions League that he is capable of putting in high-class performances against the best in Europe, so do not be surprised if this young man’s name is doing the rounds throughout 2021, especially with a European Championship tournament as well, where he will be the undoubted star for Hungary.