With Liverpool looking to bolster their attack this summer, they could do much worse than looking back to Salzburg, and a double raid for Patson Daka and Sekou Koita.
As it stands, only one player has made the leap from Salzburg to Liverpool in the Austrian club’s short history under the Red Bull umbrella.
That is Takumi Minamino, who joined in a £7.25 million deal in 2020, but two others among Jurgen Klopp‘s first-team squad spent part of their formative years under the Alps.
Sadio Mane spent two years with Salzburg before moving to Southampton, while Naby Keita stayed for a similar length of time before stepping up to their sister-club, RB Leipzig.
Beyond another double agent, veteran goalkeeper Alex Manninger, the only other player to represent the two sides is Andre Wisdom, who tasted Austrian Bundesliga success on loan in 2016/17.
With the Red Bull project blossoming, Salzburg is becoming an increasingly attractive breeding ground for clubs like Liverpool, who usually shop below the upper bracket, in favour of uncovering unpolished gems.
Typically, as the eventual signings of Mane and Keita highlight, the Reds would prefer to wait until a player has graduated onto a more distinguished platform – such as Southampton or Leipzig – before taking the plunge with a big-money deal.
However, there is certainly cause to argue that Salzburg is a more reliable source of talent now than they were even five years ago, and that a gamble could be made as soon as this summer.
Erling Braut Haaland, who left Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund in 2020 and has gone on to prove himself already operating above his station at the Westfalenstadion, will be the most-coveted player in the upcoming transfer window.
In an ideal world, Liverpool would gazump the likes of Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and literally every other wealthy European club in luring the Norwegian to Anfield ahead of 2021/22.
But a realistic approach must be taken, and if they are unable to pull off what would be considered – like Alisson and Virgil van Dijk were – a transformative signing, they could profit from turning to two of Haaland’s former team-mates.
Salzburg lost goals when Haaland left, but Daka and Koita have stepped up immaculately, with the pair leading the Austrian Bundesliga goalscoring charts.
Salzburg’s new star duo
Positions: CF, RW, LW
Positions: CF, LW, AM, RW
In all competitions, Daka (27G, 8A) and Koita (17G, 10A) have scored 44 goals and laid on 18 assists combined, and in tandem with Mergim Berisha (16G, 10A), they have more than filled the void left by European football’s new leading light.
Daka, 22, is a 6’1′, quick striker with intelligent movement and the finishing ability to boot, thriving both when dominating and on the counter, while also being prepared to work hard off the ball – as Liverpool discovered with his brace in the 2-2 pre-season draw with Salzburg.
Koita is a year younger at 21 and considerably shorter at 5’7″, and is strong, nimble, creative and capable of playing across the forward line, and like Daka, is suited to the high-intensity system employed at Salzburg.
While they are clearly important players for Salzburg, theirs is a setup that feeds off the turnover of talent, as manager Jesse Marsch explained last year on Minamino’s move.
“We understand there are better leagues in Europe than Austria,” he said.
“The thing that hurt with Taki is we think that Liverpool got him way, way, way too cheap!
“But this is part of managing the market and managing player contracts and everything.
“In the end, with the scouting team and the sporting director, we always have the next generation of players ready to come through and help, and make the next step.”
Just as Daka replaced Haaland and Koita replaced Minamino, Salzburg will have irons in the fire to succeed their African duo if push comes to shove.
They appear particularly prepared to move on from Daka, with Salzburger Nachrichten reporting earlier in March that Liverpool were among four Premier League clubs interested in the Zambian, with his current club hoping to secure a club-record fee of over €20 million.
Koita may be more difficult, of course, given he is currently serving a three-month UEFA ban after testing positive for a banned substance taken to combat altitude sickness while on international duty in November.
That may be the type of situation that tests Liverpool’s resolve when it comes to circumventing their usual approach to recruiting players on their radar in the lower leagues.
But given the many examples of big-money signings who could have been brought in for much lower fees had they cut out the middle man, it could be a scenario they review this summer.
Look at centre-back target Ibrahima Konate for example: the Frenchman will likely have been highlighted by scouts while breaking through at Sochaux, but only four years after his move to Leipzig does he look set for a £35.4 million switch to Merseyside.
Of course, Minamino’s slow progress at Anfield, which has led him to a loan under Red Bull alumni Ralph Hasenhuttl at Southampton, may serve as a cautionary tale in a shifting of the dynamics.
Haaland stands out as evidence that another stepping stone is not always required, though, with his agent, Mino Raiola, even admitting to The Athletic recently that “maybe I was too careful when I said, ‘oh no, let’s move to Dortmund instead of I-don’t-know-where’.”
The 20-year-old is clearly an exceptional case, but the changing financial landscape in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, paired with a new backdrop with post-Brexit work permit guidelines, could see more calculated risks taken.
It is something Klopp expressed an interest in ahead of Liverpool and Salzburg’s first-ever meeting in October 2019.
“The Austrian rules make it a little bit easier to make transfers for these kinds of players, because for us in England it’s just not possible to get that early ahead,” he told reporters.
“I think when they sold Naby Keita for example, it looked like they had the next one already lined up, similar player and stuff like this. They always look prepared for these kinds of things. That’s really good.”
While it is a step removed – again – from signing players directly from Africa and Asia, this suggests that Liverpool are already open to committing to less-proven talents.
The beauty of bringing in Daka, Koita or both would be that they would not be required to step up immediately as a first-choice starter, with the likes of Mane, Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah taking those roles.
But their exploits in Austria suggest they could be capable of doing so within a shorter period – and particularly Daka, who has already a believable target.
There remains a red flag, of course, in signing two more African players, with Salah, Mane and Keita all due to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations midway through next season.
However, while Koita is likely to join them in Cameroon with Mali, Daka’s Zambia have failed to qualify for the tournament, which could make him a more valuable asset in the next window.
There is clear admiration for the Red Bull setup within the halls of Kirkby – and that could even manifest itself in a similar arrangement following the recent investment into Fenway Sports Group – so it stands to reason that both Daka and Koita will be of interest.
Perhaps making the leap from Austria to England is no longer as arduous as it was, and if so, Liverpool could benefit hugely as they look to add quality to their attacking line.