Player Analysis: RB Salzburg’s unique young playmaker Dominik Szoboszlai

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The block-headed forward sent the Hungarian defence dancing in desperation. There was a flung body that slid across the muddy pitch, accompanied by a slew of outstretched legs. But it was to no avail. One touch. Right foot. One step. Two. Three. Four. Left foot.

In that sequence, Helmut Rahn steered a shot into the bottom corner of Gyula Grosics’ net as West Germany triumphed 3-2 in the 1954 World Cup final. If the final was Hungarian football’s greatest tragedy, the next seven decades would be its greatest tedium. Since the days of Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, and Ferenc Puskás, football has brought little for the nation to celebrate.

No one is claiming that 20-year-old Dominik Szoboszlai can reach the levels of national legends gone by. However, his immense quality and potential, could finally lift them from their perennial malaise.

Yet if his nationality is a reminder of the riches of football’s past, his ascendance has been distinctly contemporary. A controversial ownership model fused with analytics-driven scouting, highly structured youth development, and a Ralf Ragnick-inspired tactical approach makes RB Salzburg the most modern of modern football clubs.

A product of the club’s academy, Szoboszlai has emerged as one of the game’s brightest creative prospects — a player whose technical and tactical abilities are primed for the possession-based, high-pressing approach that’s adopted by most elite European clubs.

Szoboszlai’s role is as unique as his team’s setup. In Salzburg’s 4-2-2-2, he plays as a left attacking midfielder and operates as something in between a number ten, a left-winger, and an inside forward.

A nominee for this year’s Golden Boy award and the reigning Austrian Bundesliga POTY, the 20-year-old certainly has some of the characteristics of a classic playmaker. His technique is sublime. From his backheel passes and outside of the boot finishes to his silky first touches and chest controls, Szoboszlai’s raw ability on the ball is mesmerizing.

His through balls are almost always supremely weighted and disguised, and he is a master of what in Argentina they call “La Pausa” — that moment of hesitation before a number ten makes a pass that is just long enough to lure a defender yet brief enough to exploit an attacking opportunity when it arises.

Even when he’s not playing a particularly eye-catching pass, Szoboszlai is excellent at knitting the play together with deft flicks, touches, and short passes. It’s a less glamorous and obvious aspect of his game, but it is vital to his team’s ability to sustain attacks.

The Hungarian’s creativity is borne out in the statistics. Szoboszlai recorded 10 assists in the league last season, with 0.22 open-play xG assisted (how many assists from open play you’d expect a player to have based on the location of the shots they create for teammates) and a 2% successful box cross percentage (the percentage of a player’s completed passes into the box that are crosses. Since crosses into the box statistically have a lower chance of being scored, a lower percentage indicates the player is creating better chances)

The latter two figures place him in the 89th and 95th percentile respectively in the Austrian Bundesliga. Such levels of performance may not be directly translatable to the top five leagues in Europe, but it’s extremely impressive and bodes well for the future.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Szoboszlai’s technical excellence is his set-pieces. Left, right, close, or far, he is remarkably comfortable tweaking his run-up, body angle, and striking technique based on the position of the free-kick. It allows him to be a threat from just about anywhere, with the highly-rated attacker having already built an impressive highlight reel of Golazos.

From corners, he is equally capable of delivering in and outswingers and is especially effective at consistently targeting Salzburg’s prime aerial threat Andre Ramalho. Such is the precision of his delivery.

What makes Szoboszlai interesting, though, is that he is cannot be described as a traditional playmaker. For one, his dribbling isn’t especially effective. His unusually upright running style allows him to shield the ball reasonably well, but he isn’t particularly good at actually beating a man with tricks, feints, and changes of pace.

His decision making can also be suspect, which is certainly understandable for a player of his age, but is nonetheless a hindrance to his team when he is meant to be the chief orchestrator of attacking moves.

However, he’s an extremely dynamic and active player off the ball, belying the reputation of the languid playmaker who loiters and roams in space. While he does often drift to find pockets of space in between the lines, Szoboszlai is also inclined to make runs beyond the opposition defensive line in a position usually occupied by strikers.

The youngster is also a willing and effective presser. Salzburg are renowned for their intense, ball-oriented gegenpressing system. Using the ball as their reference point for the press (ball-oriented) means that Szoboszlai often has to shift laterally as the whole team looks to pin the opponent on the flank the ball is in, while their instant engagement of the press as soon as possession is turned over (gegenpressing) places tremendous physical and mental demands on Szoboszlai and rest of the Salzburg forwards.

That he averages 3.88 pressure regains (times a player’s team won the ball back within 5 seconds of the player pressuring an opponent) per 90, which places him in the 89th percentile in the league, demonstrates his supreme work rate off the ball.

One last thing to mention about Szoboszlai’s abilities is his shooting. He averages 3.23 shots per game, and given his xG of 0.35, you can’t necessarily fault him for taking so many shots. He excels at adjusting his body position upon receiving the ball, and this often allows him to take shots without having to take a controlling touch. Again, his superb technique is shown in his shooting. He seems equally capable of scoring from well outside the area and producing deft finishes in the six-yard box.

Szoboszlai is evidently a hugely exciting talent. He’s been linked with a host of European clubs but has reportedly drawn particular interest from Arsenal. Despite being the protégé of Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta’s most profound tactical impact in North London has been to make the Gunners more defensively solid. However, this has seemingly come at the expense of their chance creation. With Mesut Ozil being frozen out of the squad, Szoboszlai could provide the sort of creativity Arsenal have been lacking.

In Arsenal’s 3-4-3, he could line up on the left side of the front three, which would allow Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to play in his preferred central striking position. The Hungarian would certainly be more willing to press than Ozil, although he could take time to adjust to Arteta’s more man-oriented pressing scheme while providing a similar quality of through-balls and set-pieces. Both Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka excel at hugging the touchline when playing as left wing-backs, so Szoboszlai will have the freedom to play in the half and central spaces as he prefers.

However, there are a few factors that could complicate Szoboszlai’s suitability for Arsenal. Moving from the Austrian league to the Premier League will obviously be a challenge, and while Sadio Mane made the jump when he moved to Southampton, it’s unknown as to whether Szoboszlai can make the same transition — especially given the greater pressures that come with moving to a team like the Gunners.

Perhaps more importantly, Szoboszlai was given a rather free role at Salzburg. Prior to and especially after the departures of Erling Braut Haaland and Takumi Minamino, Szoboszlai has been given a great degree of positional freedom and much of the attacking play goes through him. Yet as Kai Havertz at Chelsea and Arsenal’s record signing Nicolas Pepe have discovered, moving from a team specifically constructed around your talents to one that isn’t can be extremely difficult.

For Szoboszlai, he’ll likely have less positional freedom as Arteta seems to favour players with very specific roles and responsibilities. He’ll also need to adjust to having the ball less, potentially magnifying his erratic decision-making and restricting his creative passing and shooting opportunities.

It could also be a difficult transition psychologically, as he’ll experience a different level of pressure on and off the pitch compared to what he did at Salzburg. This isn’t to say Szoboszlai can’t succeed at a bigger club. He’ll just need time to adapt, something that you don’t always get in the high-pressure environment of a big six club.

A move to AC Milan, where the tactical setup could more easily give him a free role offensively, or to RB Leipzig, who use a similar system to Salzburg, would perhaps make more sense for Szoboszlai for development.

Regardless, Premier League fans should hope that the Gunners can land his signature. We won’t be watching the next Puskas, but we’ll be witnessing the development of one of the most unique and gifted young players in European football.