When Liverpool hosted Red Bull Salzburg back in October 2019, one player left a lasting impression on Jurgen Klopp, his players and the Anfield crowd.
Takumi Minamino would record a goal and an assist for the elusive Austrians as they battled back from 3-0 down, only to suffer a 4-3 defeat against the reigning European champions in the Champions League group stage.
Also lively in Liverpool’s 2-0 win in Austria, senior players were suitably impressed. Upon his return to Melwood, Minamino was the name on everyone’s lips as Klopp’s ranks begged him to sign the Japan international.
Little did they know that a deal was already in the works, with the Reds signing the versatile forward in January after activating a £7.25m 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, he rarely managed to replicate such electric form for Liverpool in reality.
Sold to AS Monaco for £15.5m last summer, it has been jovially suggested more than once that the Reds might have spotted the big, blond Norwegian boy upfront for Salzburg instead.
Erling Haaland was equally fascinating for the Austrians against Liverpool. Although injury would ensure he could only start on the bench at Anfield, he nevertheless came on briefly in the second half to help turn the tide and score Salzburg’s equaliser.
That strike was one of an incredible eight in the Champions League group stage for the minnows, with the striker scoring a whopping 28 goals from just 22 games in the first half of the season before being sold to Borussia Dortmund for €20m. like Minamino’s own Anfield switch.
He was on the move at the same time as the Japan international last summer, joining Man City for £51.2m. after they activated his release clause. Now 12 months on, he is a treble winner and scored an astonishing 52 goals from 53 games in his first season in England.
“Even when he was very young, younger than now, you could see the potential was insane,” Klopp said last October when recalling his team’s first meeting with Haaland. “I don’t think he started against us at Anfield, I think he was injured and came on.
“But we were already quite busy thinking about him, I remember that. How can you shut him down, how can you shut him down. He scored anyway.”
Of course, it wouldn’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 ever signing the Norwegian 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 that easy.
“He wanted a top team, as soon as possible, with an open place…Borussia Dortmund. It’s timing.
“I hope you know how much I love and respect the people of 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 place, number nine… “Here we go, you’re 19 years old, want to play the Champions League, the top division of the Bundesliga, so go for it’.
“Nobody else had a chance, I’m pretty sure, no matter what they say.”
When you remember that Liverpool were on course to win the Premier League title that season, with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane providing an untouchable front three, all at the peak of their powers, then Klopp has a point. When it came time for Haaland to move to City, his wage demands ensured the Reds were priced out.
Of course, a number of other players in the Salzburg team also caught the eye against Liverpool three and a half years ago. One look at the squad list from the two games and you’ll see the names of Patson Daka, Enock Mwepu, Hwang Hee-Chan, Rasmus Kristensen and Maximillian Wober, all of whom have moved to the Premier League in the years since, but none as successfully as Haaland .
Meanwhile, you’ll also spot another familiar name in the form of the Reds’ latest transfer target – Dominik Szoboszlai.
The Hungarian was just 18-years-old when he made his run at Anfield, starting on the opposite flank to Minamino on the left in Liverpool’s 4-3 win. But unlike the Japanese international and Haaland, he was not able to make a name in the light impression.
WhoScored’s player rating of 6.1 was the lowest they handed out that night as he fired a shot off target, completed 25 of his 37 passes (68% pass accuracy), completed none of his dribble attempts, won none of his aerial duels and was powered by five times – more than any other player on the pitch. It was perhaps little surprise when he was withdrawn in the 71st minute moments after Salah had restored Liverpool’s lead.
In Austria, his WhoScored rating would be even worse as he was awarded a 5.7, one of only two players to register less than six, this time stationed to the left of a midfield diamond. While his passing would improve, completing 40 of his 46 attempts (87% accuracy), he played no key passes, attempted no dribbles, was dribbled past four times, won none of his tackles and was dispossessed three times.
As a 19-year-old, on that occasion he completed the full 90 minutes. In truth, it is not necessarily a shock that Szoboszlai fought the European champions, who added both world and English crowns to their name in the weeks and months that followed. He was just a boy, facing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Naby Keita and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
As a result, while Minamino and Haaland moved on in January 2020, Szoboszlai stayed on for another 12 months and emerged as Salzburg’s leading man in their absence.
Joining RB Leipzig in a €20 million deal in January 2021, he was sidelined until the end of that season, ensuring he would miss out on appearing against Liverpool again in the Champions League 16- semi-final. But despite the opening games against the Reds, he has continued to be sporadically linked with a move to Anfield in recent years.
Now, in talks with his representatives, Liverpool are exploring the possibility of turning such speculation into reality, although it is admitted that a deal would be complicated to complete this summer. A release clause of around £60m. is believed to be currently active, although the clock may be ticking on it.
It’s easy to see why Szoboszlai has popped up on the Reds’ radar. Now 22, he has returned 20 goals and 22 assists from RB Leipzig from 91 games over the last two seasons and boasts plenty of Champions League experience. Hungary’s captain, he has also shone on the international stage.
Standing at 6ft 2, he has a clear eye for both a goal and a pass and is incredibly versatile, with experience playing as a number eight, a number 10, a false nine and on both flanks.
He might not have noticed when Minamino and Haaland did it in 2019, aged 24 and 19 respectively. But sometimes it takes players a little longer to get to the top.
Liverpool have been monitoring the Hungarian since early meetings and he has done enough to adequately impress since they first crossed paths. With Newcastle United also reportedly tracking him, he could be on the verge of following in his former team-mates’ footsteps by moving to the Premier League.
Szoboszlai’s best years are still very much ahead of him. Whether he spends them at Anfield or elsewhere, we will find out in the coming weeks.