Back in November, when the pairings for the last 16 stage of the Champions League were drawn, Manchester City’s Erling Haaland and RB Leipzig’s Dominik Szoboszlai were quickly on the phone to one another.
Their friendship, formed in Austria in their teens and nourished through mutual support and shared congratulations for one another’s steps up the career ladder, is close.
Haaland and Szoboszlai are contemporaries, born three months apart and, at 22, long accustomed to the privileges of being the superstars of their national teams – Norway and Hungary, respectively – and the pressures of bearing such heavy individual responsibility for levering those countries up Europe’s hierarchy.
They are both sons of ex-professional players. Their bond mostly comes from the formative period they spent as teammates at Red Bull Salzburg, a hothouse for youthful talent and launch pad for a number of leading footballers and coaches and a club that formed the basis of an expanding corporate sporting empire.
The Salzburg supply line will be well represented in East Germany this evening, as Leipzig host the first leg of their tie against City.
The home team’s coach, Marco Rose, built up his reputation there. A number of current Leipzig players followed the established feeder route from the Austrian club, the starting point of the Red Bull soft drink company’s investment in football, to the Bundesliga club who rose up through the German lower divisions on the back of its backing.
In another timeline, Haaland might have made the same journey, from Salzburg to Leipzig, as Szoboszlai or the midfielder Konrad Laimer did. But it was clear, even in his teens, that Haaland was destined for a more accelerated path upwards. From Salzburg he went first to Borussia Dortmund, and, last summer, to the serial champions of the Premier League.
Haaland’s career plan had been carefully plotted from a very young age. But leaving his native Norway was an important threshold, an anxious time even for a confident young man who seldom gives off signs of nerves.
“When Erling arrived at Salzburg at 18 years old, I gave him some help,” Szoboszlai reminisced to Kicker magazine. “I knew the feeling of being new, not speaking the language and I wanted to show him things.”
Szoboszlai had been at Salzburg for 18 months already and had a league title to his name. He welcomed his new teammate off the pitch and on it.
He scored one of the goals that made Haaland’s debut in Austria a winning one and, from his advanced position in midfield, would soon be part of the supply-line of passes to a goalscoring phenomenon.
Szoboszlai played a decisive part in a run of three Haaland hat-tricks within the first six weeks of Salzburg’s 2019-20 season, when the Hungarian was the club’s leading assister, and until he left for Dortmund that winter, the giant Norwegian their leading marksman. “Ultimately,” reflected Szoboszlai, “I learnt more from him that he probably learnt from me.”
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The coach who unleashed Haaland at Salzburg was Rose who, like Haaland, then left Austria for Germany and fairly quickly found himself the inheritor, for a second time, of club’s football’s most coveted young guarantor of goals.
Rose, 46, had moved from Salzburg to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2019. He was headhunted by Dortmund in 2021, overseeing Haaland’s last season in Germany.
It turned out to be the coach’s only Dortmund season but, back on the managerial market following his sacking, it did not take too long for him to be recalled to the Red Bull extended family. Leipzig-born Rose was appointed RB Leipzig’s manager in September to replace Domenico Tedesco.
Rose set about salvaging a poor start to the Champions League group phase, and pushed them into second place. Domestically, he has Leipzig in touch with what has become a genuinely tight race for the German title, four points off a trio of joint leaders.
He has striker Christopher Nkunku coming back to fitness after a long layoff, and Szoboszlai in form, supplementing his creativity with goals – three in his last four league outings. Leipzig are tight at the back, too. In the Bundesliga, only Bayern Munich and Union Berlin have conceded fewer goals.
Part of that is down to the coveted young centre-back, Josko Gvardiol. The 21-year-old Croatian has been fully briefed on how best to contain Haaland. “I’ve spoken to Gvardiol about Haaland, yes,” Szoboszlai told Kicker, “but I’m not going to give away what I told him.”