Reporters converse with Dominik Szoboszlai as the £60m midfielder continues to adapt to life at Liverpool
A stone-faced Dominik Szoboszlai was not exactly sure why his deadpan answer had brought out a chortle from at least a couple of the reporters he was sitting in front of.
The Liverpool midfielder had just been asked who he thinks can come out on top in the battle for the Premier League title this season and it was not immediately known, to some in the room at least, if his instant response of “us” was an attempt at some dry humour.
“No!” he replied somewhat incredulously when it was asked if he was joking. “I am thinking it. I always think that way. Even if this is hard and there are very good teams in the Premier League, but we are also very good, we have a very good coach and players. We are going to do our best and at the end I want to be first.
“We will see. We have a lot of games. [Manchester City] mainly have a lot of games and we have to play against them as well. I think everybody in the Premier League who has a chance to win, they are going to want to win anyway. We are thinking the same. Like, I am thinking the same but probably the other guys are going to think the same if you ask them.
“I am this type, I like to win, I like to do everything for the team. If they ask me if I want to win the Premier League, of course I want to win it. If I want to win the Europa League and the FA Cup, the same. Everything we can do this year. I want to win everything because nobody is going to ask you how it feels to be second.”
It speaks to the confidence of Szoboszlai that he had no hesitation outlining Liverpool’s title ambitions just weeks into his new life on Merseyside, but the new signing is already showing the sort of conviction that helped make him a £60m signing at the beginning of July.
If Szoboszlai cuts an impressive figure, holding court to a handful of journalists in perfect English at the age of just 22, it’s because he has been almost purpose built to become an elite professional since his junior years, under the guidance of his father, Zsolt, who made his son the standout recruit at his Fonix Gold academy in the Hungarian town of Szekesfehervar, about 40 miles south of capital Budapest.
Having left home at the age of 14 to pursue a career in professional football with dreams of emulating Cristiano Ronaldo, Szoboszlai was forced to grow up fast, moving to Austria to join the Salzburg arm of the Red Bull stable before settling in their reserve side Liefering. From there, it was the well worn path from Salzburg to RB Leipzig and then, eventually, a European giant in Liverpool.
“Well, with my dad, I was training a long time,” he says. “He was my coach. With him I almost only did the technical stuff, the shooting stuff. And when I got to the Red Bull family, either Salzburg or Leipzig, I learned to work against the ball a lot, in different systems to see myself in a position like No.8. or No.10 – sometimes as a No.6. I just learned everything there.
“At the beginning it was really hard without my parents, friends, I had a girlfriend at that time as well. It was not easy, I did not speak the language, not even English or German. It was not the easiest way. Of course when you are young people are nice but you are new so you feel that a little bit the first couple of months. But then I got to the training, I showed myself and they just grabbed me, come with us to the city or do whatever you want.”
After an encouraging debut in the 1-1 draw with Chelsea earlier this month, the all-action Szoboszlai was outstanding in the victory over Bournemouth on his Anfield bow last week. The Hungary captain won the penalty that allowed the Reds to take the lead through Mohamed Salah after Luis Diaz had cancelled out Antoine Semenyo’s early opener, but it was after the team went down to 10-men following Alexis Mac Allister’s red card where Szoboszlai really shone.
The energetic showing was superb as he combined his technical gifts with his ability as a tireless, natural athlete to ensure the 10 men prevailed on his maiden display in front of his home fans. It was a tantalising glimpse at what might be in store this term after he became the fourth most expensive player of all time at Liverpool.
It was a deal that was wrapped up decisively over the course of less than a week. Liverpool initially met with the Hungarian’s agent Matyas Esterhazy on Monday June 26, just five days before his release clause was set to expire in Germany. The £60m bid, tabled on Friday of that week, unlocked the terms which led to the swift curtailment of a holiday in Croatia, where Szoboszlai was visiting with friends.
“Yes it all came about really quickly,” he says at the club’s AXA Training Centre. “It happened in two or three days. I did my things with the club and then my agent spoke to the club and then the two clubs had to figure out how we do it.
“Of course, I felt it from day one really and of course. The manager called me and that was the final decision to say: ‘OK, I want to join them.’ Because of this energy, what I said before, how Klopp talks even on the pitch and off the pitch, so of course I am really happy.
“Everyone on the holiday was enjoying it, so was I and then my phone rang and [my agent] said: ‘OK, now you have to stop enjoying it and take care of yourself! Because it can happen that now you have to leave.'”
With Liverpool’s midfield in something of a flux, Szoboszlai arrived following the departures of James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The new No.8 joined on alongside Mac Allister, who had signed from Brighton & Hove Albion just a few weeks earlier, but within a fortnight, it was clear captain Jordan Henderson and Fabinho would be furthering what has now become a mass midfield exodus at Anfield this summer.
So does the new Reds star already spy an opportunity to become one of the new leaders of a fresh-look Liverpool? Or is the posterboy of Hungarian football simply looking to ease into the high-profile surroundings in the Premier League?
He adds: “I have only been here six weeks and some guys have already been here for five or seven years. They are the leaders. Of course I am doing my things on the pitch and if I have to be a leader on the pitch, even if there are guys who are older or have been here longer than me, I am trying to do my best. But first of all, I have to come into the team, I have to show myself, I have to be better and then it all comes.
“Klopp said to me of course many players have left and that was before even Hendo and Fabinho left. He said some of them have already left. We didn’t speak about [a midfield rebuild] that much, but we just talked about what his plan is. He wanted me to join, he wanted to work with me and I said the same. I wanted to work with him and do everything for the club.”
One of the other clubs keeping tabs on Szoboszlai over the summer were Sunday’s opponents Newcastle, who were reportedly forced to drop their interest once it became known of Liverpool’s advances. Szoboszlai insists any apparent admiration never went further than talks with his representatives as he prepares to line up in what could be a debut midfield trio of fellow new arrivals Mac Allister and Wataru Endo at St James’ Park.
“This is a job for my agent!” he says of Newcastle rumours. “So, no. I am just doing my thing and if something comes up he is going to tell me but if it is really serious then comes to me and sits down and talks.”
On life at Liverpool, he adds: “These guys welcomed me really well and even the fans. I thought I would need time to play and then they would start to recognise me or know me but from the first day it was really great and now with the time I am getting recognised even more, so on the pitch it will be really nice.”
And there was an exciting hint about the potential for the revamped engine room to quickly gel, should the three new recruits get their chance on Sunday.
Szoboszlai said: “It is not only the decision of us [to play] it is the decision of the coach, how we’re going to play and put the team. But as you say, Macca is new, I am new, Endo is new. We understand each other really well, even if Endo has only had two training sessions with us and one game when he came in. Yes, we will see. Over time we will be even better, but we will have to see.”