The Red Bull football project has arguably been more effective than its drink in keeping some football fans awake at night.
Their involvement in the sport is routinely ostracised for its perceived plastic ownership strategy, yet there are elements of the Red Bull model which should actually be celebrated.
Blanket some ofthe feverish opinions and the cold-hard reality is that they are arguably one of the best-run operations in football, with much of Red Bull’s cash poured into developing the most promising young players on the planet.
Since Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz purchased Austria Salzburg in 2005, his group’s portfolio of clubs has pumped out as many brilliant players for our eyes as they have energy drinks down throats.
Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino are two of Salzburg’s most recent examples, but they certainly will not be the last. The question is, which of the Austrian giant’s current stable will be picked off next? There’s a few contenders to examine.
Dominik Szoboszlai | 19 | Hungary
Before Milan decided to stick with Stefano Pioli, Ralf Ragnick was set for a return to management at the Rossoneri.
The former Leipzig boss has been serving as Red Bull’s Head of Sport and Development, so it speaks volumes that his chief transfer target was said to be Szoboszlai. That move may not materialise now, but the interest in the Hungary international remains high, and for good reason.
Lining up on the left of midfield, the game comes comfortably to Szoboszlai. His body mechanics are easy on the eye as he maneuvers his way around the pitch with grace.
Nothing is forced, his passes are measured and his touch secure. Pressure him and he tip-toes away serenely, stand off and he’ll buzzsaw through lines of defence at speed.
It’s not just all glitz, though, the teenager allies graft with his craft and while he’s not a naturally clean finisher, his technical ability elsewhere plus football IQ mark him out as a special player indeed.
He’s far from a traditional winger in the sense he positions himself in between both boxes, rather than darting into the box from out wide. It explains why the 19-year-old produced more assists (14) than goals (nine) in the Austrian Bundesliga last season,
Watch out for asimilar transformation to Kevin De Bruyne, into an elite midfielder, in the years to come.
Noah Okafor | 20 | Switzerland
YouTube search results provide a decent guide of where a player is at in their development.
Szoboszlai, for example, returns numerous slick edits with titles such as “Why everyone wants to sign Dominik Szoboszlai”. The search results aren’t quite as emphatic for Noah Okafor, but they will be soon.
The 20-year-old had been on Basel’s books since the age of eight and moved to Salzburg in January for a league-record 11.2 million as the Austrians wisely reinvested the cash from the sales of Haaland and Minamino. He’s already impressing.
Okafor has taken flight on Salzburg’s left wing after he scored three and assisted one in three games after the Austrian Bundesliga restarted.
He is silky skillful and his immediate intention is to be direct and daring. But there’s certainly more to come.
He is very much in the development phase of his career, which is obviously normal considering his age, as the Switzerland international hasn’t quite found his timing yet in terms of directing a cross or releasing a pass.
He has that immature tendency to hold onto possession for too long which can lead to unbalanced crosses and undetected passes. However, the footwork is smooth and he possesses the knack of maneuvering the ball without actually touching it through his clever body feints.
Changes of direction are sharp and he often leaves defenders in the dust. If he can find a clinical mentality in the same way Jadon Sancho has done, he won’t be in Austria for too long.
Manchester City, Sevilla, Juventus, Dortmund, Inter and AC Milan were all interested in signing the winger before he joined Salzburg and it’s feasible that clubs of that calibre will come calling again.
Patson Daka | 21 | Zambia
Patson Daka is always smiling. It’s probably because he’s always scoring.
The 21-year-old finished the Austrian Bundesliga season as the second top scorer, netting 24 times in 31 games, his best-ever tally by miles.
Impressively, 10 of those strikes were scored after Haaland had departed for Dortmund. Although he’s been a slow-burner in comparison to his explosive former strike partner, Daka had only scored three league goals in the previous two seasons, he won’t be far behind when it comes to a move to one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues.
Daka is another fine example of Red Bull’s diversified scouting network. There are 10 different nationalities represented in the first-team squad from Japan to Mali.
Zambia is hardly a heartland for elite talent and yet the Austrians have two very promising players hailing from the African country – more on Enock Mwepu later.
Daka, though, is their next goalscoring sensation. The departure of Haaland was always going to hurt, and Salzburg did miss his superpowers in front of goal.
The Zambia international by contrast is a much more elegant player. If we say Haaland is Thor, all hammer and thunder, Daka is more like The Flash, more cutting than bludgeoning.
He doesn’t possess the same physical oomph, but he’s extremely mobile and electrically fast. What he does share with Haaland is that he, too, will likely be using Salzburg as a stepping stone for a move to one of Europe’s elite in the near future.
Karim Adeyemi | 18 | Germany
Salzburg’s strategy is to give youngsters a chance at a club of sizable stature and sell on at a profit.
Of course, this means the club is very transient, yet the team remains successful despite its conveyor-belt nature and the reason for that is that selling players is only bad when they’re not adequately replaced.
Monaco are a prime example of this failure. So, Haaland departs, Patson Daka steps up.
Daka will no doubt leave in due time. Karim Adeyemi is next, and he could be even better than the others.
His journey is slightly different as well in that he was actually discovered by one of the super giants. Adeyemi was on the books at Bayern Munich, but was released because of discipline issues.
The striker dropped down to the lower reaches of German football with Unterhaching, however, it wasn’t long before Europe’s elite circled with Chelsea taking him on trial before Salzburg proved most attractive with their promises of a structured career path.
The teenager only broke into the first team in February, but he’s looked deadly. Devastatingly direct, Adeyemi’s vivacity and sweet feet have made his transition into senior football effortless.
He catches the eye with the way he can blaze through defenders, but it’s his cold will to win which is most impressive. This is a player who is well aware of his talent and his potential, soon enough all of Europe will be as well.
He’s mainly featured off the left side for Salzburg, contributing to four goals in 10 games, leading to talk he could become the successor to Jadon Sancho at Dortmund.
Enock Mwepu | 22 | Zambia
Sazlburg is effectively one of football’s best refineries.
The precious talent arrives from all parts of the globe packed full of shimmering potential. They are too much of a risk for Europe’s elite, but Salzburg acts as the polisher, sharpening them mentally, physically and culturally so they eventually fetch a higher price.
Any top side looking for players with a positive mentality on the pitch, who is active in the press, quick in transition and can find solutions, then look no further.
Liverpool employ a similar system and so head coach Jesse Marsch believes Enock Mwepu is another player ready to be handpicked by the champions. It’s easy to see why.
The Zambian is an archetypal box-to-box midfielder. He mixes boundless energy off the ball with serenity on it and it’s hard not to be impressed. In fact, against Liverpool in the Champions League, he was magnificent across both group stage games.
The 22-year-old demonstrated his two-way talent in that he was press resistant, using minimal touches in tight spaces and intelligent short passes to develop play from deep in midfield, while also being a press instigator high up the pitch. His sense of timing is excellent as he leaps on loose balls with his long limbs and he frequently sneaks in off the blind side of attackers to scurry the ball away, too.
Mwepu’s game is about being in the right position at the right time. His career will follow a similar path.
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