Danish football has a rich history of producing technically superior footballers. The Laudrup brothers, Preben Elkjær Larsen, and John Dahl Tomasson, are all widely regarded as some of the best footballers Denmark as a nation has been able to produce and have reached the pinnacle of European football.; Christian Eriksen is a name many modern-day fans also associate with modern Danish football, and he also joins the list among the greats in his nation.
But the talent pipeline has slowed down in recent years, with the recent success of the national team being founded on the existing talent within the core and relying on the later peak of some of its essential parts to flourish near the end of their careers, ala Kasper Schmeichel, Simon Kjær and Eriksen. It’s been relatively quiet on the attacking end of the production line in Denmark, with much of the more promising talent on the younger scale coming in the defensive side; Andreas Christensen, Joachim Andersen, Joakim Mæhle and Alexander Bah.
Danish supporters would’ve been encouraged when contending Austrian side Sturm Graz signed then-19-year-old Rasmus Højlund from Copenhagen for a minimal fee of €1.8 million. Højlund’s rise from his hometown side Copenhagen, where he played a crucial role in their progression through the qualification stages of the Europa Conference League, has been rapid; a come-up that has been seen on the international stage — making his senior debut for the national squad just a few months later.
With the shortage of high-potential young centre-forwards at a reasonable financial level, Højlund provided an attractive option, and his performances in central Europe quickly drew attention from various clubs. His efficiency in his early career was admirable — 12 goals in 21 appearances — but his game was very moldable.
Italy had been a recent hotbed for promising young attackers to make their name, particularly Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. Atalanta was no longer the enticing offer three or four years ago. They were transitioning, and Gasperini was poised to lead the team into the next chapter. The ever-unreadable Italian, a well-known coach in European football, saw Højlund as the sort of profile his team needed to head their rebuild.
Six months in Austria, and he was out. It was an indication of his highly regarded talent. Many in Denmark were surprised at how quickly he moved on from Sturm Graz, but it was not a surprise at the level he was moving onto. It was expected that he would perform for a club in Europe’s top-tier competitions, and performing he is.
His start to life in Bergamo was one of a younger player adapting to his surroundings. The talent was on display but in spurts. Post-World Cup, he was a player that went from a boy to a man, a man who was not just enjoying his football but his life. Having missed out on a spot in the 2022 World Cup squad to more experienced forwards like Andreas Cornelius, Martin Braithwaite and Yussuf Poulsen, Højlund has been eager to ensure that Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand did not ignore his talents for any longer.
The World Cup omission may have been a surprise considering the regard his talents holds within the footballing nation, but it was needed. Sometimes moves in a player’s career can come too soon, like flowers you receive unexpectedly and have an immediate responsibility to take care of it. Højlund has been receiving his flowers since his breakthrough, but he wasn’t ready for a bouquet. The extended mid-season break evidently gave him time to work on his game and adapt to the role within the Atlanta side.
Højlund’s Style of Play
Rasmus Højlund’s physical appearance and attacking abilities resemble Dušan Vlahović in his Fiorentina days. While the 20-year-old forward lacks Dušan Vlahović’s goal-scoring record at Fiorentina, he is still two years younger than the Serbian was during his peak season in Florence. Under Gasperini, Højlund has been primarily used as a second striker alongside a more direct forward, with a rotation of Duván Zapata, Luis Muriel, and Ademola Lookman operating with him in a two-man partnership in the 3-5-2.
His goal scoring hasn’t been the main point of development during his brief time in Bergamo so far, often playing a more supportive role for the aforementioned names. He’s a versatile attacker who can stretch into space, drop to combine, slide runners through, drive at goal, sniff out opportunities in the box, and threaten from a distance.
At first glance, you can see why he earns such a comparison to Dušan Vlahović and Erling Haaland. Rasmus is roughly 6’2″ and possesses a large physique that allows him to hold play up and include others in the play. He often comes deep to collect the ball to assist his side in building play, frequently seeking to pass the ball wide for a teammate before turning and racing for goal.
His ability to carry the ball quickly also aids in the creation of others, particularly on the counter-attack, a trait that is demanded from young forwards in the modern game. As mentioned, his physical characteristics also allow him to be a highly adaptable tactical asset.
He can stand off the last man’s shoulder and dart onto passes in-behind on the counter, play as a target man who can hold the ball up for others, or swing wide to attack the channels and create space for other teammates to exploit. He can finish with curlers on the spin, dribbles past the goalie into an open goal, flicks backheels, soaring headers, and long-range thunderbolts, and he’s capable of doing it all on both sides of his body.
What Does The Future Hold For The Dane?
At 20 years old, Rasmus Højlund already has the makings of a top-tier centre-forward, as seen by his understanding in the final third and poise and technical aptitude with the ball. Given that portions of his play have the potential to propel him to a degree where he might be much more of a difference-maker in his own right at a high level, but a move this summer could come too soon for his development.
Gian Piero Gasperini is a genius at extracting every little bit of quality from a player, and if he develops Højlund to operate in ways more often associated with his radical attacking ideas, he’ll be helping to smooth out rough edges that require smoothing for him to get him to the desired tier of elite young forwards.
By: Raphael Adelugba / @RaphaelAde0
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Emilio Andreoli / Getty Images