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Yussuf Poulsen: the rise of RB Leipzig's battering ram striker from third division to Bundesliga


He was Timo Werner's perfect strike partner, Joshua Kimmich's perfect flatmate, and RB Leipzig's perfectly powerful front man with the club record for appearances. Does Denmark international Yussuf Poulsen have any flaws?

"When you compare our rooms, I'm definitely a lot tidier," revealed Kimmich, who shared a flat with Poulsen while the pair were only household names in their own living room in Leipzig. "And fortunately we have two bathrooms. If I had to wait for Yussi to do his hair, we would always arrive late."

That did happen, at least to Poulsen, after the pair had joined Leipzig at the same time in 2013, and the Denmark international paid for his tardy arrival to training by missing the club's next match. In the third division. Since then, RBL's fortunes have changed massively, and so have Poulsen's.

Watch: Get to know Yussuf Poulsen

He's now the club's record appearance holder with 293 games as of the end of the 2020/21 season. That adds another line to a gripping story whose latest chapter was focused on him wearing the captain's armband for the first time in the Matchday 26 draw at Freiburg. Julian Nagelsmann might even forgive him for occasionally being late for training now...

Not that Poulsen has been caught slacking since moving out of the shared flat with Kimmich in a bid to be more independent.

"The first bit of Yussuf's play I saw on video was that after losing the ball, he sprinted the entire length of the pitch to win it back, and he did that several times a game," said then-RBL boss Alexander Zorniger.

"He always pushes himself beyond his limits, and embodies dynamism, desire, and a willingness to learn. When he can't do anymore, that's when I know he has absolutely nothing left in the tank."

Yussuf Poulsen is effective for Leipzig at both ends of the pitch. - Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

It takes a lot, though, before Poulsen's needle dips into the red: a forward that wins over 40 per cent of his duels as the Dane did in the 2019/20 campaign gives a lot more than simply goals to his team.

In the 2017/18 season, he won a challenge every four minutes, a ratio he would have happily taken if he had made the grade as a defender, the position he played until age 14.

"With or without the ball he's a machine," said Leipzig defender Willi Orban. "And he does an incredible amount of work for us."

He plays for RBL, but he is the LBR: Leipzig's battering ram. But reducing Poulsen to the mere brawn of his bantamweight boxer's build would be to ignore the fact he got 34 goals in 139 Bundesliga outings and is only the third Dane - after Ballon d'Or winner Allan Simonsen and Schalke icon Ebbe Sand - to score 14 or more a single Bundesliga season.

Watch: Poulsen's incredible hat-trick vs. Hertha!

He became the first Leipzig player to net a top-flight hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Hertha Berlin on Matchday 27 of 2018/19. That treble was capped with a lob of balletic delicateness that belies his hulking 6'3" frame. His idols, Rivaldo, Thierry Henry and Patrick Kluivert, would have been proud.

"I haven't decided where to put it yet," Poulsen said of the match ball afterwards, still grinning from ear to ear. "This is my third year in the Bundesliga now, and I've needed this time to get to where I am."

"Yussuf was simply rewarded for everything he does," said then-boss Ralf Rangnick, an observer at close quarters of the Dane's contribution. There is no doubt his physique and unwavering commitment to the team's cause - as well as his goals - took the weight off Werner, the Batman to Poulsen's Robin, just with the builds reversed. With opposing defences given a 'Whack! Thwack! Ka-pow!' going over by Poulsen, they simply couldn't cope when Werner turned on the after-burners and darted in to net chance after chance. Holy dynamic duo!

That Poulsen is brave and faces up to the challenge on the pitch comes as no surprise when you learn of his courage off it. His Tanzanian father, Shihe Yurary - whose surname he wears on the back of his Denmark shirt in tribute - lost his battle with cancer when Yussuf was just six.

"When I came to Leipzig, I asked if I could have 'Yurary' on the jersey. But when I signed, they'd already printed the 'Poulsen' jerseys," he explained. "I came to football through my father. He played regularly but not as a pro. That was a bad time for me and my family. We had to learn to live without him. Today, I associate every game with him."

Shihe did see his son's first footballing steps at local club FK Skjold - where he first met future international teammate, ex-Bayern Munich man and close friend Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg - but missed the strides he took at Lyngby before Leipzig appeared to be a left-field leap of faith.

Joshua Kimmich (l.) and Yussuf Poulsen (r.) were part of the RB Leipzig journey together back in 2013. - imago/Picture Point

Poulsen's mind was clear though. "I want to play every weekend and not sit on the bench of some big top-flight club," he explained when joining RBL. "Here, I'm a first-team regular and can develop. Also, the club really did a lot to bring me in. That impressed me."

It was a bold gamble that has paid off handsomely for club, country and Poulsen, who has come a long way from the timid "crazy nervous" 20-year-old stepping into a Leipzig dressing room full of seasoned pros whose career achievements he has - at now 27 - long since outstripped.

Perhaps it was no surprise Poulsen, who might have been an accountant if his football numbers had not added up - "I think I would have studied economy or mathematics," he said - struggled to believe he had the right to be there as so few had had the faith he would reach the top level.

Yussuf Poulsen has made 56 appearances for his country - Denmark - and scored nine goals. - STUART FRANKLIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

"He was definitely not the best player at that moment in time," said his youth coach in Denmark, Thomas Frank. "But maybe his biggest talent is his mentality."

"I was never Denmark’s greatest talent, or the one everyone thought would make it," added Poulsen. "But whenever someone said I couldn’t, I wanted to show that I could."

The scorer of Denmark's first goals at both the 2018 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2020 - the latter dedicated to teammate Christian Eriksen and the second-fastest in the competition's history - he's very much shown that to the world.