The prospect of an exciting up-and-coming attacker working under a coach renowned for developing talented youngsters is always a mouth-watering one – and such is the scenario at RB Leipzig now, where Julian Nagelsmann will oversee the development of new signing Dominik Szoboszlai.
But given that Leipzig are already spoiled for choice in attacking midfield, where will the 20-year-old fit in?
To answer that we first need to know what he can do. As it turns out, he can do quite a lot.
“Dominik can play in a variety of positions,” Nagelsmann explained after the transfer was confirmed. “He can play in attacking midfield, as a left-sided attacker or even out wide on the left wing. He can also do the same on the right. In Salzburg he operated as a No.10 a lot and as a left-sided No.8 .”
Szoboszlai himself is also aware of his abilities. “I can read the game well out on the pitch and before I receive the ball I know where I want to play it, things like that” he told kicker. “And free-kicks and set-pieces in general are among my strengths.”
He scored four direct free-kicks alone in 2019/20 for Salzburg, forming part of the 26 goals and 35 assists he registered in 83 competitive outings for his former club. Leipzig, by contrast, have scored five goals from set-pieces as a team so far this season.
As impressive as those numbers are, it is even more striking that all but five of those goals and six of the assists have come since the start of the 2019/20 campaign. It suggests that he has flourished following Erling Haaland’s departure for Borussia Dortmund, and is very much in a sweet spot in terms of his development.
All of which sounds good on paper and bodes well for Leipzig, but how will it play out in reality?
The right footer operated in left midfield in the vast majority of his 64 competitive games for Salzburg (42 times). He was a central attacking playmaker just twice, on the right wing three times, and deployed as a No.8 in central midfield on 17 occasions.
So how could that tie in with how the tactician has Leipzig playing? The 33-year-old is renowned for his unpredictability, varying his formations and line-ups from game to game to keep opponents guessing.
So far in the Bundesliga this season Die Roten Bullen have played in a 4-2-3-1 (five times), a 3-4-2-1 (four times), a 4-1-3-2 (twice), a 4-3-3 (twice) and a 3-4-3 (once). The point here is that whatever the team’s shape, there are usually three attacking midfielders on the pitch – so there ought to be room to accommodate someone of Szoboszlai’s gifts.
As well as being tasked with finding the gaps in opposition defences with their runs and passes, Leipzig’s attackers are often required to cover a lot of ground as they press high up the pitch in a bid to force mistakes.
Watch: Leipzig's tactics under Nagelsmann
However, those roles are usually taken by a combination of Dani Olmo (10 starts), Emil Forsberg (nine), Christopher Nkunku (six), or Justin Kluivert (three), while the more central No.8 positions are invariably occupied by captain Marcel Sabitzer (eight starts) and Amadou Haidara (nine).
It is a conundrum not lost on Nagelsmann, who, predictably, already has a solution in mind: “We do already have a lot of players in his position, but it’s a position that involves a lot of wear and tear.
“No matter what the basic formation, as a No.8 you always have to trigger a lot of pressing moments. You have to win the ball but you’re also on the move a lot when we have possession, and you have to sprint behind the defence a lot. In other words, these are really demanding positions. After a short period of adjustment to a different league, he’ll do us a lot of good.”
Nagelsmann’s mention of “wear and tear” is significant, as his side already have 23 more games to play between now and the end of the season - starting with a visit from Haaland and Dortmund on Matchday 15 on Saturday.
That figure that could even rise to 32 (over a period of 22 weeks) depending on how far they progress in the DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Szoboszlai already has plenty of experience in the latter competition, with three goals and an assist from 11 games, while he is also a full Hungary international.
“He’s definitely someone who can get assists, but also score goals himself,” Nagelsmann said. “I think he’s rightly coming here with a lot of self-confidence and I’m sure he’ll integrate himself well and will definitely be able to help us.”
Regardless of where he ends up playing then, Leipzig look set to get even better this year.
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