After newspaper reports in both Hungary [Origo] and Germany [Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung] linked Huddersfield Town with Hoffenheim’s Hungarian striker Ádám Szalai, this piece looks to provide some insight into who Ádám Szalai is before exploring if he’d be a good signing for Town to make.
Who is Ádám Szalai?
Born in the Hungarian capital Budapest, Ádám Szalai began his footballing career at amateur sides Budapest Honvéd FC and Újpest FC. However, it was the move to German side VfB Stuttgart II which acted as the catalyst to kickstart his senior career.
After making thirty appearances for Stuttgart’s second side in the Regionalliga Sud, Szalai made the shock move to Spanish giants Real Madrid for a fee in the region of €500,000. Featuring regularly in the Real Madrid Castilla side, Szalai scored sixteen goals in the Segunda Division B.
With an impressive goal-scoring record for Real Madrid Castilla, Szalai began attracting attention from Germany once again and he joined Bundesliga side Mainz on loan in the January transfer window until the end of the season. Szalai made a notable impression on the Bundesliga as he played a significant role in Mainz’s seven-match winning streak which included the scalps of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. The permanent signature of Adam Szalai was seen as a real coup for Mainz as the Hungarian striker went on to score twenty times in sixty-four appearances for Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz side.
This attracted the attention of some Germany’s biggest clubs but it was Schalke who paid the £5 million fee to acquire the services of the Hungarian international. It appeared to be money well spent when Adam Szalai’s individual efforts against Greek side PAOK saw Schalke progress to the UEFA Champions League group stages following a Szalai brace in the second leg.
Despite such an excellent start at Schalke, the Hungarian striker only made 28 appearances for Die Königsblauen before making the €6 million switch to Adam Szalai’s most current side, Hoffenheim. Despite spending a loan spell at Bundesliga rival Hannover 96, Adam Szalai has been crucial to Hoffenheim’s success this season as Die Kraichgauer finished in the Champions League places after a fourth place finish. With eight goals and an assist at a goal to minutes ratio of 96 (most of which came in the second half of last season), Szalai has been a consistent source of goals and an extremely effective impact substitute for Julian Nagelsmann to turn to.
In an interview with Hungarian journalist and expert on Eastern European football Tomasz Mortimer, I asked some of the questions which will be on the minds of Town fans when they heard that Town were linked with the 29-year-old Hungarian.
How would you describe Adam Szalai’s playing style?
“He’s a big strapping centre-forward. Excellent at positioning his body to bring others into play, and can hold men off to buy time for others to join in the attack. An underrated finisher, too but that’s not something he’s known for. Defensively excellent at pressing and tactically astute from the front”
Do you think his playing style would suit English football?
“100%, it’s almost like he was born to play in England during the 90’s. The big lump up to the big man is his modus operandi, the physical game in England won’t faze him”.
What are his strengths and weaknesses?
“His strengths are his ability to hold the ball up and link play. On a bad day, His main weakness is his first touch is frustrating as hell, and everything at times can bounce off him likes he’s a goalpost. He’s struggled with consistency and confidence, on a bad day it’s honestly better to play with 10 men. On a good day, he’s unplayable.”
How crucial has been to Hoffenheim this season?
Surprisingly crucial, Hoffenheim fans would attest to that. Last summer, and in January he looked destined to leave but during the winter Nagellsmann clearly told him he can trust him and ever since he’s magnificent and ended the season as the Bundesliga’s best scorer by minutes per goals and helped Hoffenheim finish in the CL places.
What is it about Szalai which has seen him be utilised as such an effective impact substitute by Nagelsmann?
“He’s just a belligerent and intelligent footballer, and a defenders nightmare. When a defence is tiring late on the last thing they want to see is the battering ram coming on who will run forever, chopping at your ankles, standing on your feet, backing into you. He knows where to be to help his team and though he isn’t technically very good at all, he’s very effective.”
How is he perceived in Hungary?
“Like marmite, completely. The fans are split 50-50. He can be so frustrating on a bad day when the balls pinging off him this way and that way, but for a team who’s mostly on the back foot like Hungary are, he’s an incredibly useful outlet and is someone who will work hard from the front and that’s why a lot of fans love him.
It’s funny because before the Euro last summer he’d been in awful form and a lot of fans didn’t want him in the team. An hour or so into the opener vs Austria he was having a stinker and the Hungary fans started getting on his back, then seconds later. The ball gets played to him from Kiraly, he brings it down, plays it backwards, gets it back, plays a one-two and sticks Hungary 1-0 up. It was typical Szalai: the terrible to the sublime in a matter of minutes.”
Should Town sign him?
From the interview above, a number of conclusions can be drawn about Adam Szalai. It is clear that Adam Szalai would not arrive at the John Smith Stadium as the athletic technically gifted centre-forward to lead the line in the Premier League. However, that does not mean that Szalai would not be a good signing for Town to make.
Considering the Hungarian international has entered the final year of his contract at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, from a simple economic perspective, Hoffenheim may be more inclined to sell Szalai this summer even for a nominal fee rather than allowing him to leave for nothing next summer. This means that the Hungarian international would be far from a costly signing for Town to make and therefore a low-risk, low-cost buy.
On the field, the former Schalke striker would provide leadership from the front and the Hungarian’s ability to call upon his wealth of experience both in the German top flight and in the Champions League could prove crucial next season as Town look to consolidate their status in the Premier League.
As well as leadership and experience, Szalai simply offers something else. Something completely different to Town’s current striking options. It has often been said that Town lack a ‘plan b’ to turn to when the high-energy gegenpressing style is ineffective.
As a Number 9 who is comfortable being a focal point for a more direct approach, Szalai would offer Town more of a presence up front as Szalai has the physicality and aerial prowess which has at times been lacking.
Most significantly, Adam Szalai’s impact off the bench for Hoffenheim has shown that he is extremely effective as a substitute. Although Szalai may not have the necessary attributes to lead the line for Town next season, he would be an excellent addition to the squad, even if his role is predominantly as a substitute. If the Hungarian striker can score between 5-1o goals off the bench for Town next season, that could prove to be invaluable in a league where fine margins make all the difference.
With a criticism often fronted at Town’s current front line being a lack of composure and efficiency in front of goal, Szalai’s goal per minute ratio in the Bundesliga is particularly impressive. A goal every 96 minutes and a shot accuracy of 80% for the side that finished 4th in the Bundesliga shows the prolificacy of the Hungarian when given a chance, despite being deployed mainly as a substitute by Julian Nagelsmann.
The only major flaw that can be attributed towards Szalai is that performances are often marred by inconsistencies. However, if Szalai’s inconsistencies are a confidence related issue, there are very few man managers who are as effective as David Wagner is.
If David Wagner can provide an environment where he can get the most out of Adam Szalai, Szalai could well prove to be an extremely effective option for David Wagner to turn to and Town’s most recent masterstroke in the transfer market.