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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Paul Gorst

How Dominik Szoboszlai quietly caught Liverpool's eye after changing his mind on Cristiano Ronaldo dream

As the father of a teenager son with untapped potential as a footballer, Zsolt Szoboszlai took an unusual step around a decade ago.

So dissatisfied with the Hungarian youth system and how it trained and prepared their young hopefuls, Szoboszlai senior - who had been a professional striker for various clubs throughout the 1990s and 2000s in his homeland - decided instead to coach his son directly.

With a particular talent for striking the ball and taking an impressive free-kick, Dominik Szoboszlai liked to view himself as the next Cristiano Ronaldo as he spent hours practicing on the pitches of Szekesfehervar, about 40 miles south of capital Budapest, hitting hundreds of dead-balls daily.

"He always demanded a lot more from me than from all the others. He knew that I had to work more," Szoboszlai is quoted as saying about his father's training methods. "I was on the field with the ball for hours every day."

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"When I was 14 I always had in my mind that I wanted to be Cristiano Ronaldo, like a lot of kids," Szoboszlai said in an interview with Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano two years ago. "But as I grow up I know I can reach the top and I started thinking about myself, concentrating on me and not looking at anyone else. So it's just about me and myself.

"Because of Ronaldo's mentality, he worked so much for his dreams and what he wanted to achieve. And, yes, he did it. So nothing is impossible. I have my own goals and I want to reach them also."

Now, though, as he prepares to complete a £60m move to Liverpool, the Hungary captain is no longer thinking about emulating Ronaldo, or anyone else for that matter.

As well as spending hours listening to the one-on-one demands of his father, a young Szobozslai also played for local academies Videoton and Fonix Gold before a move to MTK Budapest, whose reputation for exporting the country's best players out to the rest of Europe is well honed.

After a single season with MTK, Szoboszlai moved to Austria to join FC Liefering, who are a feeder club to Red Bull Salzburg, in 2016. He was initially spotted at an under-15s game for Hungary by scouts of the Red Bull stable.

It was a smart move that opened up the same pathway that has helped an increasing number of talented players become household names to football fans across the continent.

"He came to FC Red Bull Salzburg as a very young player," Christoph Freund, sporting director at Salzburg, once recalled. "At the time, he was full of talent and he also had a lot of self confidence. In this age you have to learn a lot to arrive in professional football. So the matches for our co-operations club FC Liefering helped him a lot to improve his skills and also his mentality to become the player he is now."

After two years of bedding in at Liefering, Szoboszlai was called up the main roster in 2018 and made his debut in May of that year. Within a year he had made his international bow, at the age of 18, beginning a career with the national side that has since seen him take the captaincy.

Szoboszlai is undoubtedly the Golden Boy of the Hungarian side, with his former manager Jesse Marsch once likening him to the country's greatest son. “You have to understand, Dominik is the hope of Hungarian football. He’s the next Ferenc Puskas," Marsch said in an interview with The Athletic in 2020.

By then, Szoboszlai was already known inside the corridors of power at Liverpool. In a game that saw Erling Haaland come off the bench to score and future Reds forward Takumi Minamino leave Jurgen Klopp visibly impressed with a wonderful volley of his own, a teenage Szoboszlai turned in an industrious performance as the then champions of Europe just about edged a remarkable game at Anfield 4-3 in October 2019.

"We are primarily looking for players between the age of 16 and 19," Freund is quoted as saying. "At that age, the chance is higher that they come to Red Bull Salzburg and don't go to an international top club."

Liverpool keep a close eye on the best players emerging through the Red Bull system and with Szoboszlai having become another success story for that particular route of development, the Reds have been watching him for a number of years. He was not a new name on the radar when talks with his representatives began earlier this week.

Szoboszlai hired Shane Tusup, the American swimming coach who has become a huge name in Hungarian sport, in 2020 during the suspension of football due to the outbreak of COVID-19 to help improve his physical and mental strength and the results were said to have been impressive.

Known as one of the great strikers of the ball in European football, Szoboszlai might have had dreams of following in the footsteps of Ronaldo as a youth, but it is another Manchester United No.7 who the attacking midfielder has previously been compared to.

“I describe him as a modern-day David Beckham,” Marsch said. “Beckham had a real ability to hook a ball and he could also chop it when he needed to, but Szoboszlai can hit the ball a lot of different ways too, and he’s got power."

At Salzburg, he grew into something of a leader, despite his fledgling years and played an important role in helping Erling Haaland settle in Austria after his move from Norway.

"When he came to Salzburg alone, nobody spoke his language and he was alone and I know this feeling because when I came to the first team I felt the same," Szobozslai said of his relationship with the Manchester City striker. "So I just took him and helped him a lot, tried to teach him some words in German and go and do things in the city, going for dinner and stuff like that. So we just became close friends and we're still in contact."

He completed a move to RB Leipzig in January 2021 for around £25m, following the well-worn path of several others that included Naby Keita. It's here where he started to take real steps towards what is hoped will be Premier League stardom with the Reds, establishing himself as one of the most dynamic midfielders in the Bundesliga.

Twenty goals were registered across his 91 appearances with Leipzig, which included 10 in all competitions last time out. Only Jonas Hoffman, Joshua Kimmich and Julian Brandt played more than Szoboszlai's 77 key passes last term that saw him finish the term with 13 assists in total.

The 22-year-old's statistics for goals, assists, shots on target and chances created last term all outstrip the numbers within the current crop of Liverpool's midfielders and his energetic, powerful running will tick several boxes for Klopp as he gets set to also add a goalscoring dynamic to his ranks for the new campaign too.

"[It's a club with] fantastic history and it's fantastic news for Hungarian football, Dominik Szoboszlai deserved it very much!" says national team-mate Zsolt Kalmar. "Everyone can be very proud to play for a team like Liverpool. I think he has a great chance of getting into the starting line-up because he has fantastic qualities. He is fully ready for the Premier League."

Likely to play as one of the two 'No.8s' in Liverpool's midfield, Szoboszlai boasts a versatility that will appeal to Klopp. "Dominik can play in a variety of positions," Julian Nagelsmann, his former manager at RB Leipzig, has previously said. "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 number 10 a lot and as a left-sided No 8."

Klopp will be rubbing his hands at the versatile nature of his new man, but after a season of widespread underperformance for an injury-riddled midfield last season, it's clear where Szoboszlai will be deployed to begin with at Anfield.

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