Seven Months In Graz – Rasmus Højlund’s Beginnings

The name Rasmus Højlund has understandably been on the lips of numerous Manchester United fans. A striker heavily linked to the Premier League giants who are in dire need of a striker. With both sides agreeing a fee, many journalists alongside United fans, have looked at his performance during his single season at Atalanta – nine goals plus four assists in 32 league games since moving to Bergamo last summer.


But this piece won’t analyse his debut season in Serie A. It will look at his previous club – the seven months in Sturm Graz that first alerted clubs to the young Dane. When Sturm Graz sold Kelvin Yeboah in January 2022, they looked to Denmark for their replacement. Although his appearances for Copenhagen were mainly from the bench during the first part of the 2021-22 season, then Sturm Graz manager Christian Ilzer had no qualms in wanting to buy Højlund. Speaking to Tipsbladet in March Ilzer said:


We thought that Rasmus would be perfect for us due to his speed, physicality and ability to attack the ball in depth.”


So, when Sturm Graz paid €1.9m on January 28, 2022, Højlund quickly made his debut for Sturm Graz at WSG Tirol on February 12. Despite Sturm Graz going a goal down, the Dane was quick to keep his opponents honest, using his pace to nip behind the defence and create a wasted chance for a teammate. Højlund would then later fashioned a chance for himself, using trickery to nip past a defender and his power by stinging the goalkeeper’s hand with a fierce shot that was palmed away.


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Yet Højlund was not to be denied, expertly timing his run to break the offside trap and displaying his composure by lashing a shot into the bottom corner for a goal on debut. That would become a debut brace in the second half when he latched onto a rebound from close range. Though WSG Tirol would fight back to draw 2-2, it was an impressive debut by the Dane. His brace made him only the second player to score twice on their Sturm Graz debut.


Højlund’s second game eight days later would be a tougher test at home to Rapid Vienna. It took the Dane just six minutes to score – anticipating well to make a run into the box when Jakob Jantscher broke free on the right and his low cross was converted by the striker.


Despite Højlund being 6’3ft tall, the Dane showcased his talents with his feet, linking up play with other teammates. Even though the game ended 2-2, Højlund had again made a good impression. He would maintain that goal-scoring trend in the next game against TSV Hartburg on February 27, displaying nifty footwork to earn a penalty that he converted in a 3-0 win. Four goals in three games made the Erling Haaland comparisons when he first signed grow even more.


It was the more impressive as the Dane was living in Graz by himself – without his parents, girlfriend, relying on his teammates for help – a daunting prospect for any 19-year-old. Højlund would continue his good form by providing an assist in his next game – yet another 2-2 draw against SV Ried. His next game would be a toiling endeavour against RB Salzburg – a 1-0 defeat to the eventual champions.


However, despite Højlund not scoring in the following game, a 3-1 victory for Sturm Graz against Austria Klagenfurt – Højlund bounced back by showing his repertoire. Pace to glide past his marker, composure to cut inside and forced the defender to commit, only to be denied scoring the opener by his shot shading the wrong side of the post.


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It was this, alongside the little things, that would have impressed his coaches and many scouts. Little things such as his willingness to drop short to act as an option, but not too deep in order to avoid disconnecting the attack. Or operating in wide channels at times to stretch the defence and make centre-backs go to areas outside their comfort zone.


Højlund would score his fifth goal in his seventh league game against Wolfsberger AC – lashing in from close range to seal a 2-0 win for Sturm Graz. Despite not scoring in the following game, a 1-0 win at home to Austria Vienna, the Dane was still a positive threat, not afraid to show a bit of individual skill when required.


It was against Rapid Vienna in the following game that Højlund displayed his talent. With Sturm Graz leading 1-0, the Dane received the ball from Jantscher and drove forward. Causing the defenders to step back into their box, the Dane produced a quick stepover and then drove a shot away from the despairing dive of the goalkeeper into the bottom of the net and seal what would be a 2-1 win.


Though the Dane wouldn’t score in the club’s last five league games, his strong second half of the season would help Sturm Graz finish second in the league behind RB Salzburg and enter the Champions League qualifiers. Scouts across clubs in Europe’s top leagues now kept a keen eye on Højlund and the Dane kicked off the 2022-23 season well by scoring twice and an assist in a 6-0 win against third-tier side SC Rothis in the Austrian Cup first round.


Sturm Graz began the league season a few days later at Wolfsberger. Finding themselves a goal down, Højlund showcased his creative talents for the equaliser, using his physical strength to hold off his marker before fizzing in a low cross across the six-yard box that was turned in by fellow striker Manprit Sarkaria.


Though Sturm Graz was held to a goalless draw in their league opener, Højlund would more than make up for it a week later on July 30 in their next league game against defending champions RB Salzburg. Højlund delivered a fortuitous warning to Salzburg when his cross was deflected and tipped over by Philipp Köhn. Yet the keeper’s good work was quickly undone when a heavy touch of the ball from a back pass led to Højlund opportunistically sliding the ball ahead of Köhn into the back of the net.


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If Højlund’s opener was fortuitous then his second goal on 51 minutes was simply brilliant. With a Red Bull Salzburg attack breaking down, Amadou Dante’s pass released Højlund into the opposition’s half. Using his pace to drive towards the centre-back, Højlund powered past him and sensationally lifted the ball past Köhn into the back of the net.


In just a few seconds, Højlund showed pace, composure and precision – traits of a certain Norwegian at Manchester City. Though RB Salzburg gained a goal back, Sturm Graz held on to win the game and further increased his reputation. Though Højlund would fail to score in the first leg defeat in the Champions League playoff against Dynamo Kyiv on August 3, as well as the league draw vs SV Ried three days later, Højlund would not be goalless for long as he scored in the second leg vs Dynamo Kyiv.


However, it would not be enough, with Sturm Graz losing in extra time. Not qualifying for the lucrative Champions League group stages would have a ripple effect, as Højlund’s last game would be on August 20 – a 1-0 defeat to LASK. On August 27, Højlund would move to Atalanta for €17 million – roughly ten times what Sturm Graz paid FC Copenhagen seven months earlier. For a youngster to make an upward transfer move within six months is very rare – not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Erling Haaland achieved such a thing.


Now, just a year later, Højlund is about to make a move to one of the world’s most recognisable clubs. Pressure of an unimaginable kind. However, if Højlund can replicate his form at Sturm Graz for Manchester United, then Old Trafford will have another young player to sing about the terraces – just like the fans of Sturm Graz.


By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Emilio Andreoli / Getty Images