Unable to make the step up from feeder team Real Madrid Castilla in the Spanish capital, Szalai jumped at the chance to return to the Bundesliga when 1. FSV Mainz 05 came knocking at the start of 2010. A year later, the imposing forward suffered a serious setback when a torn cruciate ligament left him sidelined for the whole of 2011. Fast-forward to the present day, though, and Szalai is at the top of his game and itching to throw himself back into the Bundesliga action, as he revealed in an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com.
The stop-start nature of Szalai's early career inevitably hindered his development, but under Thomas Tuchel's guidance at Mainz, the powerful frontman is now beginning to truly blossom.
In 67 Bundesliga appearances, has scored just 17 times. However, the reality is that a large proportion of those outings were either finding his feet as a newcomer in the side or feeling his way back from injury. Now fully fit and an established first-team starter, Szalai has scored nine goals (with two assists) in 17 league matches this season. Ominously for Bundesliga defenders, the striker believes he "can definitely still improve".
"In great shape"
However, far from seeking personal glory, Szalai is swift to recognise his colleagues' efforts. "I owe it all to the team," he said. "When things are going well for the side, everyone benefits. [The first half of the season] went well for me. I'm 25 now and hopefully I can play as well as I did before the winter break in a lot more games."
He is not the only one. After spending much of last season dangerously close to the relegation zone, Mainz now sit in sixth, just four points behind third-placed Borussia Dortmund. "Our position reflects our performances," Szalai continued. "You don't get up to sixth in the Bundesliga on pure luck. We've shown for a long time that we're a team with real quality and we aim to continue in the same vein."
The signs are good that Mainz can do just that, especially with their frontman settled and often unplayable. "I'm very pleased with my preparations [during the winter break]. The training camp was good, we've played well in friendlies and we're in great shape."
Mainz will see if their efforts have paid off on Matchday 18 at home to fellow surprise package SC Freiburg, who are one place higher owing to their superior goal difference. Szalai is aware it will be "no easy game", but simultaneously cannot hide the self-belief his displays have brought: "I can't wait for the match".