Red Bull Salzburg: Unearthing and nurturing the game’s next big stars

Red Bull Salzburg: Unearthing and nurturing the game’s next big stars

by Emily Smith
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Karim Adeyemi has scored 15 goals in 26 games in all competitions for Red Bull Salzburg this seasonRed Bull Salzburg know the time will come for exciting young forward Karim Adeyemi to move on. They also know there are a number of hungry prospects knocking on the door waiting to replace him.

That’s the beauty of the Austrian side’s model. When Europe’s top clubs come circling, Salzburg always unearth another gem.

Before 19-year-old Germany international Adeyemi it was Erling Braut Haaland. Before him Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano and Sadio Mane – and many others in between.

“A player like Karim attracts interest from a lot of good clubs, of course,” Red Bull Salzburg sporting director Christoph Freund tells BBC Sport.

“He knows too though what he has with us and how important it is for him to develop step by step. He has the opportunity with us to get a lot of playing time at a high level. When it is time, he will take the next step in his career.”

On Wednesday, however, instead of supplying the continent’s elite, Salzburg have a chance to join them with a place in the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time.

Adeyemi, who scored on his Germany debut in September, has netted three times in five group games to put Salzburg on the verge of becoming the first Austrian side to progress from the competition’s opening round since Sturm Graz in 2000-01.

A draw at home to Sevilla in their Group G finale will earn Salzburg’s band of young, promising future stars a spot in the last 16.

Ralf Rangnick became Red Bull Salzburg’s director of football in 2012, moving on to RB Leipzig in 2015The philosophy at Salzburg changed in 2012 when Ralf Rangnick – now interim boss at Manchester United – arrived at the club as director of football, the first of a number of roles the German would occupy with Red Bull.

The energy drinks brand, who have since relinquished ownership of the Austrian outfit but remain their major sponsor, implemented a rebrand when they bought the club in 2005, though it was Rangnick’s arrival that brought a number of principles still prevalent today.

Salzburg’s focus is on buying and developing youth and they rarely sign players over 23, while Rangnick’s counter-pressing legacy lives on, with the club the third most efficient at the practice in the Champions League group stage this season.

Only Rangnick’s former team RB Leipzig and Chelsea, coached by one of his disciples in Thomas Tuchel, have completed more “pressed sequences”, according to Opta.

“We are now the youngest team in the Champions League group stage with an average age of around 22 years old,” says Freund.

“At the start, a lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing or were dissatisfied. There was a lot we had to do at many levels to convince people of our work.

“We now attract great respect for what we do. We know though that it can’t always get better and better, and we will have years when we struggle a bit. We will not move from our way of doing things then either though.”

Red Bull Salzburg sit second in Group G and only need a draw to reach the Champions League last 16Underpinning the club’s success is a scouting network that is the envy of many across the globe and the system’s effectiveness is highlighted by the players who move on for large fees.

Last summer, striker Patson Daka and midfielder Enock Mwepu brought in just shy of £50m when they joined Leicester and Brighton respectively, while forward Takumi Minamino arrived in the Premier League with Liverpool in January 2020.

A stream of players have left the club for RB Leipzig over the past few years, though Freund says that is the players’ decision rather than any Red Bull connection – and it was Borussia Dortmund who won the battle for Haaland’s signature when they paid his £17.1m buyout clause in January last year.

That is £10m more than Salzburg bought the Norway international from Molde for 17 months earlier. They responded to his departure by signing Swiss forward Noah Okafor, 21, from Basel for a club record of around the £10m made from the Haaland sale.

“The scouting system is based on a clear philosophy we have as a club, and a clear picture of young talents that we want to see with us,” explains Freund, who says the calibre of players they attract “makes us very interesting for talents who otherwise would probably never have chosen to come to Austria”.

“All of us, and, of cours, our scouting team, is convinced of this philosophy, which means we know exactly what we are searching for.”

In an article published by the clubexternal-link detailing their scouting process, Red Bull Salzburg say they first look for local talent at a young age and then widen the pool to European players over the age of 16 – those who top clubs might be hesitant to take a risk on. From 18, they can sign players internationally.

They have had huge success in the international market – Daka and Mwepu were signed from Zambian side Kafue Celtic, Minamino from Cerezo Osaka in Japan, Amadou Haidara, now at RB Leipzig, from youth football in Mali and more recently the highly-rated Brenden Aaronson, 21, came from Major League Soccer outfit Philadelphia Union.

“On the one hand, we look very closely around the world for young players who suit our style of football,” adds Freund. “On the other hand, we have very good access to the market thanks to our very good reputation for developing talents.

“Players, parents and agents are increasingly approaching us, and we have plenty of options. If we see players who interest us, we like to observe them for a really long time.”

Those who meet the club’s criteria – determined, able to transition quickly and possessing a positive mentality – go into a database of more than 400,000 names and the best are scouted in person to examine the finer details of their character and application.

The club’s “end scouting list” shows the ideal candidate in each position. So when Salzburg decide they need a certain player, the recruitment process can move quickly.

“We don’t just watch their qualities on the pitch,” says Freund. “We try to find out by talking to people around them, about how they are as people and their background.”

American prospect Brenden Aaronson talks to sporting director Christoph FreundPart of the appeal is the club’s state-of-the-art training base in Liefering, a facility boasting an anti-gravity running track and where masses of data is key to providing feedback on players’ performances in training.

Proof of the Red Bull Academy’s success came when Salzburg won the Uefa Youth League in 2017, three years after the facility was opened, with Daka scoring in a 2-1 victory over Benfica in the final.

But exposure to senior football at a young age is also attractive and the club aim to facilitate “as much playing time as possible in the professional game very early on”.

“They come into a system that is perfect for young talents and helps them to develop and show their qualities as best as possible,” explains Freund.

Seven of Salzburg’s starting line-up for their last European game against Lille either spent time in the academy or at feeder side FC Liefering. Perform well, as the club have done this Champions League campaign, and players put themselves in the shop window.

“They definitely don’t come to Austria for the wonderful landscape or money,” jokes Freund, reflecting on the past acquisitions of Haaland, Upamecano and Dominik Szoboszlai, who left for RB Leipzig in January.

“They come to Red Bull Salzburg as they know they will get the opportunity at some time to move to a big club, if they perform. That’s why we are already looking for the next generation to replace Adeyemi and Co.”

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