Dominik Szoboszlai has been a revelation since his big-money move from RB Leipzig, but not exactly in the role many expected when joining Liverpool.
That statement is entirely open to debate, especially given his recent underwhelming performance at Kenilworth Road.
What’s harder to argue with is his contribution to Liverpool this season: most minutes played amongst outfield players, most progressive passes, most shot-creating actions and most opposition passes blocked.
If not for “well done boys, good process,” Liverpool would be unbeaten and level on points at the top. The 23-year old is a massive part of that.
The role of all-round midfielder was key to the summer window drama, yet few clubs were looking to cast Szoboszlai.
The likes of Mason Mount, Moises Caicedo and Matheus Nunes, all of whom Liverpool also admired, were far more coveted across the Premier League ahead of their respective moves.
What did Liverpool see in Szoboszlai? Why did so few others see it? And just how has it worked out so well?
Last season, Szoboszlai played just six percent of his Bundesliga minutes in central midfield.
Typically he was deployed out wide as part of a 4-2-2-2 system, an attacking midfield/winger hybrid. He was also trialled in a deeper midfield role for both club and country.
In the past, a player with Szoboszlai’s vision and technical quality would be moulded into a playmaking No. 10 who would drift in and out of games but deliver big moments.
These kinds of players are largely extinct now due to the speed and physicality of the modern game.
When submitting the Hungarian to the eye test, however, it’s clear he had the physical tools and work ethic to play more of a box-to-box role.
This meant he could potentially demonstrate his quality as a No. 8, because he would always be involved in the game.
If we look at Szoboszlai’s FBref numbers from last season, which would have formed part of Liverpool’s scouting report, we see support for the evidence of our eyes.
Not only are his attacking numbers excellent, he also ranks positively amongst other attacking midfielders for defensive actions such as tackles and blocks.
Clearly, Szoboszlai had all of the tools.
But having spent so little time using those tools in the optimum position, it required a little creative thinking to picture him as a Premier League No. 8.
Whether it was Jurgen Klopp, Jorg Schmadtke or Jenny the scouting apprentice, someone at Liverpool had the imagination to see that Szoboszlai would fit.
A snug tactical fit
After switching to the 3-box-3 formation last season, Liverpool became more defensively compact, and Trent Alexander-Arnold had more licence to affect the game from his new central position.
But to make this work, Liverpool’s midfielders took up more advanced positions, while the wingers stayed closer to the touchline.
To maximise this system, Liverpool needed to recruit a superb attacking midfielder, comfortable both in the half-space and the wings.
He immediately offered Salah a genuine passing option in front of him when pulling wide.
But when the No. 11 wants to get into his optimum position in the right half-space, he also has an overlapping runner to create space for him.
It’s no surprise that Salah leads Liverpool in both goals and assists with Szoboszlai beside him.
To play in a 4-3-3/3-box-3, unlike the 4-2-2-2, Szoboszlai also needed to bring his physicality to get back into the middle during transitions and counter-press effectively.
This helpful graphic shows just how adept he is at recovering the ball high up the pitch.
Adapting Szoboszlai into this position has given him a platform to shine, and given Liverpool a major system upgrade.
It’s almost easier to describe what Szoboszlai can’t do (get a corner kick past the first defender, so far) than what he can (pretty much everything else).
The first glimpse he showed in the Premier League was the burst of pace at Stamford Bridge.
One blue shirt was left sprawling, then another, as Szoboszlai strode into space on the right and the travelling Kop roared their approval.
Over the following weeks, we saw sweet feet to escape tight spaces, crunching tackles, superb long-range goals, delicate chipped passes and an incredible engine that seems to go on and on and on.
Thanks to his small feet and unorthodox childhood training regime, Szoboszlai can deftly turn out of congested areas.
But his powerful 6’1″ frame and long strides also allow him to burst past opponents and exploit open space. He opened his account with his left vs. Bournemouth before unleashing a rocket with his right vs. Leicester.
While Szoboszlai has only one goal and two assists in the league this season, he is top for shot-creating actions – suggesting his team-mates could start doing better with his service.
In the data, he is one of the best midfielders in the league for blocks and passes blocked, notably higher than several of Liverpool’s other targets who moved elsewhere in the Premier League.
We saw this against Brighton, too.
Liverpool committed numbers forwards to disrupt Brighton‘s elite buildup play, and Szoboszlai stole the ball high up before winning the penalty that gave his side the lead.
After his least effective display so far vs. Luton, Klopp highlighted the lack of counter-pressing as the key to a disappointing result – highlighting just how important Szoboszlai has been against the ball.
High risk, high reward
After showing only flashes of brilliance in the Bundesliga, it seemed a risk for any club to meet Szoboszlai’s £60 million release clause.
But after identifying the correct position for his skillset, and matching him to a role in their system, Liverpool acted decisively.
The rewards are being reaped on the pitch week in, week out, as Liverpool look to follow up their leading transfer window by leading the league at the end of May.