As Liverpool set about reinforcing their midfield this summer, they first opted for the Premier League-proven Alexis Mac Allister from Brighton, paying £35m for Argentina’s World Cup winner. The Anfield club’s next move was to sign Dominik Szoboszlai, who at 22 is already captain of Hungary. Liverpool paid his £60m release clause – for which they are getting a complete player who can play all across the midfield and has shown leadership qualities since his youth. There is a hope he can add more energy and creativity to Jürgen Klopp’s team.
Szoboszlai has impressed in the Bundesliga at RB Leipzig with his assists and ball technique, but also his defensive work, leading the pressing or tackling. “I’d say he’ll need half a year to adjust physically, he also needs to muscle up a bit more and get used to two-games-a-week routine,” says the Hungarian football analyst Gabor Karpjuk. “The game philosophy is similar [at Liverpool]. I expect him to improve a lot and have a big impact at Liverpool.
Karpjuk has been following his rise closely ever since he was working as an analyst for the Hungarian Under-17s when Szoboszlai began making waves in 2017 as his three goals sent Hungary to the Euros. He scored twice from free-kicks against Russia to turn around the game, and later his shot from distance in stoppage time against Norway (with Erling Haaland up front) secured a necessary 1-0 win.
“He shot from about 25 metres, even if he was actually sprinting towards the ball. It was technically a super-complicated shot, but he scored,” says Karpjuk. “So you can see he was never shy to take the shot, which essentially meant if his team would qualify or not. He always had this in him. If you put extra pressure on him, he would even perform better and better.”
Szoboszlai, only 16 at the time, quickly became Hungarian football’s brightest hope. “Those free-kicks were the latest everyone found out about him,” says the Hungarian football writer Abel Meszaros.
Starved of international success, as Hungary qualified for the World Cup last time in 1986, Szoboszlai was heralded as the future leader of the national team. In 2020, another shot from distance in stoppage time against Iceland in the play-offs secured Hungary’s advance to the Euros.
For Hungary, he has always been prepared to take on the extra responsibility. “It’s rare that a player at this age isn’t afraid of this type of stress,” Karpjuk says. “He had this professional mindset when he had to do his job or it was game time. That comes back to dealing with pressure. He was at his best when he had to deal with pressure.”
Szoboszlai’s father, Zsolt, played in the Hungarian top flight and made sure his son got the proper football education. Instead of playing with toys, as a child Dominik always had a football at his feet. While his peers were having fun, he practised free-kicks. He spent most of his youth at Főnix Gold, the football academy on the outskirts of Szekesfehervar co-founded by Zsolt, where the emphasis was on technique and short passing.
Red Bull Salzburg’s scouts noticed him playing for the national youth team and signed him after he turned 16. Karpjuk believes the move to Austria has been great for his development. “Definitely, he had a special ability with the ball and excellent technique, but he needed to develop his off-ball performance. That was addressed after his move to the Red Bull school. There he could learn the off-ball movement: how to press, how to be aware of pressing triggers, etc. I was impressed how he ended up being one of the best attacking midfielders without the ball. He has this awareness. His recovery and timing of tackles are truly extraordinary.”
Considered a generational talent, Szoboszlai quickly climbed through Hungarian youth national team categories, often ending up in a team with players who were several years older. He also received his first senior call-up at 16, even if it was only to warm the bench against Russia and Andorra. However, he was never the one to shyly sit in the corner.
“He had proper leadership skills,” Karpjuk recalls. “When he played with older age groups, he consistently associated himself with the senior players. When he was in the U21 national team, he played together with Attila Szalai from Fenerbahce who was two years older, or there were even players who were four years older.
“However, he was in the central group of that team, essentially among the captains. He was a bit quieter when playing with the older guys. But in the dressing room, a lot of times he was the one who played the music. During the game, he often said that this tactical thing is not working and we have to adjust something.”
Tactical awareness has always been a part of Szoboszlai’s game and it improved after moving to Salzburg. He gained experience playing for Liefering, Salzburg’s reserve team in the second league, and recorded 42 goals and 45 assists in 125 games in Austria. In January 2021, he joined RB Leipzig for about €20m, then the highest price paid for a Hungarian player.
That record fee has been surpassed by his move to Liverpool. “Arguably, it’s the biggest signing in Hungarian football history. Maybe we can talk about Ferenc Puskas going to Real Madrid, but he went later in his career and after two years without football,“ Meszaros says. “Rene Maric met him at Liefering in 2017 and said that this guy is going to be among the top five or seven midfielders in the world. And I think we’re going there now.”
That is the result of long years of hard work, something Szoboszlai truly appreciates. When he was 15, he had his first tattoo, inspired by a quote from the Liverpool great Steven Gerrard. “Talent is a blessing from God, but without incredible will and humility, it is worthless,” it says in translation from Hungarian. In a timely echo, Szoboszlai will be wearing the No 8 shirt at Anfield.