When Liverpool hosted Red Bull Salzburg in October 2019, one player famously left a lasting impression on Jurgen Klopp, his players and the watching Anfield crowd.
Takumi Minamino would score a goal and an assist for the unwitting Austrians as they fought back from 3-0 down, only to lose 4-3 to the reigning European champions in the Champions League group stage.
Also vibrant in Liverpool’s 2-0 win in Austria, senior players were quite impressed. Upon his return to Melwood, Minamino was the name on everyone’s lips Klopp’s ranks begged him to sign the Japan international.
Unknown to them, a deal was already in the works with the Reds signing the versatile striker in January after he triggered a £7.25 million release clause in his contract.
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But while Minamino won the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup during his two-and-a-half years at Anfield, in reality he rarely managed to replicate such electric form for Liverpool.
Sold to AS Monaco for £15.5 million last summer, it has been jovially suggested more than once that perhaps the Reds should have reckoned with the big, blond Norwegian boy at the front of Salzburg instead.
Erling Haaland was just as hypnotic for the Austrians against Liverpool. Although injury meant he could only start on the bench at Anfield, he did come on in the second half to briefly help turn the tide and score Salzburg’s equaliser.
That goal was one of an incredible eight in the minnows’ Champions League group stage, with the striker scoring a staggering 28 goals from just 22 games in the first half of the season before being sold to Borussia Dortmund for €20m in the same month. as Minamino’s own Anfield switch.
He was on the road at the same time as the Japan international last summer, joining Manchester City for £51.2 million after they activated his release clause. Now, 12 months later, he is a treble winner, scoring an impressive 52 goals from 53 games in his first season in England.
“Even when he was very young, younger than now, you could see it was potentially insane,” Klopp said last October when he recalled his side’s first meeting with Haaland. “I don’t think he started against us at Anfield, I think he got injured and came on.
“But we were already quite busy thinking about him, I remember that. How can you shut it down, how can you shut it down. He scored anyway.”
Of course, it didn’t take a genius to see that Haaland was destined for the top. But Klopp would reveal that despite signing Minamino in January 2020, they had no chance of always bringing the Norwegian in for an often overlooked reason.
“Dortmund needed a striker”, he said in February 2020. “Everyone blames Man United for not getting him, but we wouldn’t have got him. We couldn’t have got him. It’s as simple as that.”
“He wanted a top team with an open space as soon as possible… Borussia Dortmund. That’s timing.
“I hope you know how much I love and respect the people at Dortmund, but it’s not that they made a perfect approach and did this and that, it was more that they were there, had the space, number nine. .. ‘Here we go, you are 19 years old, want to play Champions League, top segment of the Bundesliga, so go for it’.
“No one else had a chance, I’m pretty sure no matter what they say.”
If you remember that Liverpool were on their way to winning the Premier League title that season, with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane forming an unassailable first three, all at the peak of their abilities, Klopp has a point . When Haaland moved to City his wage demands saw The Reds being priced out.
Of course, a number of other Salzburg players caught the eye against Liverpool three and a half years ago. If you look at the squad list of the two games you will see the names of Patson Daka, Enock Mwepu, Hwang Hee-Chan, Rasmus Kristensen and Maximillian Wober who have all moved to the Premier League in subsequent years, but none as successful as Haland.
Meanwhile, you’ll also see another familiar name in the form of the Reds’ latest transfer target: Dominik Szoboszlai.
The Hungarian, just 18 years old when he ran at Anfield, started on Minamino’s flank, on the left, for Liverpool’s 4-3 win. But unlike the Japan international and Haaland, he couldn’t make a big impression.
WhoScored’s player rating of 6.1 was the lowest they handed out that night, as he fired one shot on target, completed 25 of his 37 passes (68% passing accuracy), completed none of his dribbling attempts, won none of his aerial duels, and was dispossessed five times – more than any other player on the field. It was perhaps no surprise when he was withdrawn in the 71st minute just after Salah restored Liverpool’s lead.
In Austria, are WhoScored rating would be even worse as he got a 5.7, one of only two players to record fewer than six, as this time he was stationed on the left side of a midfield diamond. Although his passing would improve by completing 40 of his 46 pass attempts (87% accuracy), he played no key passes, did not attempt to dribble, was dribbled past four times, did not win any of his tackles, and was dispossessed three times.
By then, a 19-year-old, he completed the full 90 minutes on that occasion. In reality, it’s not necessarily a shock that Szoboszlai was up against the European champions, who have won both world and English crowns in the weeks and months that followed. He was just a boy and competed against Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Naby Keita and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
As a result, while Minamino and Haaland left in January 2020, Szoboszlai stayed on for a further 12 months and emerged as Salzburg’s leading man in their absence.
He joined RB Leipzig in a €20 million deal in January 2021, but an injury sidelined him until the end of that season, which would see him miss the Champions League round of 16 game against Liverpool . But despite that initial struggle against the Reds, he has been sporadically linked with a move to Anfield in recent years.
Now that talks are being held with its representatives, Liverpool are exploring the possibility of turning such speculation into reality, even conceding that it would be difficult to close a deal this summer. It is believed that a release clause of around £60 million is currently active, although the clock may be ticking.
It’s easy to understand why Szoboszlai has appeared on the Reds’ radar. Now 22, he has scored 20 goals and 22 assists for RB Leipzig from 91 appearances over the past two seasons and boasts plenty of Champions League experience. Captain of Hungary, he also shone on the international scene.
At six feet tall, he has a clear eye for both goal and pass, and is incredibly versatile, with experience as number eight, number 10, false nine and on both flanks.
He may have gone unnoticed when Minamino and Haaland did in 2019, aged 24 and 19 respectively. But sometimes it takes a little longer for players to get to the top.
Liverpool have followed the Hungarian since those early encounters, doing enough to make enough of an impression since they first crossed paths. With Newcastle United also reportedly following him, he could be about to follow in his former teammates’ footsteps by moving to the Premier League.
Szoboszlai’s best years are still far ahead of him. Whether he spends them at Anfield or elsewhere, we’ll find out in the coming weeks.
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