Livescore Thursday, April 25

This summer we are running a series profiling 50 exciting players under the age of 25 — who they are, how they play, and why they could be attracting interest in the coming transfer windows.

So far we have run the rule over two Bayer Leverkusen stars, Florian Wirtz and Moussa Diaby, who were in action in the Europa League semi-finals earlier this month. 

Next up, it’s a towering 20-year-old who is on Manchester United’s radar…

There is often a duty of care required when a young striker begins to make waves in Europe.

We should give them time to develop. We should give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We must be wary not to overstate their talent too soon.

Rasmus Hojlund is making it rather difficult to downplay his performances.

The 20-year-old’s ascent from the Danish Superliga to Serie A — via the Austrian Bundesliga — has been sharp and was punctuated by five goals in two international games for Denmark during Euro 2024 qualifying in March, including a hat-trick in a 3-1 win against Finland. 

With 32-year-old Duvan Zapata and 31-year-old Luis Muriel entering the twilight of their careers, Hojlund represents a new attacking era for Gian Piero Gasperini’s forward line, alongside Ademola Lookman — who himself is having the best season of his career with 13 Serie A goals and five assists.

So what exactly is Hojlund’s style of play?

Comparisons with fellow Serie A forward Dusan Vlahovic are not unfounded, while Hojlund’s manager has not helped in calming the noise around his talents.

“He has very similar characteristics to (Erling) Haaland, not just his face,” said Gasperini. “He is so quick, he’s under 11 seconds over 100m and that’s not even trying very hard. Considering his height, he has a low centre of gravity and can move his legs very fast.”

Praise indeed. But Hojlund has been careful to curb such lofty comparisons with human/robot Haaland since his time at Sturm Graz in 2022.

“As I’ve said many times before, I would not like to compare myself to him because he’s a monster, he’s crazy!” Hojlund said in an interview with the Austrian Bundesliga.

“I can see the similarities: he’s fast, I’m also fast; he’s left-footed, I’m also left-footed; he’s strong and I’m strong, too. I hope that I can reach his level, but I’ll need to train very hard and be even more focused on the pitch.”

While Hojlund has shown some purple patches, his goal output is understandably not at the ridiculous heights Haaland has hit this season, having scored eight Serie A goals from his 18 starts.

Nevertheless, one of the most encouraging metrics that show good evidence of Hojlund’s positioning is his average shot quality — with an xG per shot of 0.17 among the best for a forward in Serie A this season.

As you can see from his shot map below, Hojlund will often arrive near the penalty spot for a first-time finish or drift across to the left half-space to get a strike away on his stronger left foot.

However, considering his tall, powerful frame, one notable weakness in Hojlund’s early career is his ability in the air. At 6ft 3in (190cm), the Dane should have the beating of most defenders in an aerial battle, but his 36.9 per cent aerial win rate puts him below average among forwards in Serie A this season.

His strength to hold off defenders when receiving the ball is a key attribute, but just six headed efforts this season shows it is an area for him to improve on. 

Hojlund’s 0.43 non-penalty expected goals per 90 is the sixth highest of all Serie A players with 900-plus minutes — with the Dane comfortably the youngest player within the top 20 forwards in Italy.

Sticking with the younger cohort, Hojlund’s non-penalty expected goals rate places him as the eighth-highest under-23 player across Europe’s top five leagues, behind the likes of Youssoufa Moukoko, Ansu Fati, Folarin Balogun and — of course — Haaland.

Mapping this against his non-penalty goals scored per 90, you can see that Hojlund’s output is exactly at expectation this season. 

Put simply, he is getting chances worthy of a goal every other game and is converting those chances at the same rate.

While the typical modern-day forward has experienced a bit of a makeover in recent years towards a more cunning, fluid false-nine profile, Hojlund is more of a throwback — his hurried, tenacious style of play often looks like he’s playing on fast-forward.

The blistering speed he possesses is a huge advantage within Atalanta’s counter-attacking style. Only Fiorentina (70), Sassuolo (72) and AC Milan (84) have accrued more direct attacks — defined as the number of open-play sequences that starts just inside the team’s own half and has at least 50 per cent of movement towards the opposition’s goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box — than Atalanta’s 68 this season.

An excellent example of this can be seen against Lazio, where a loose pass from Luis Alberto leads to a turnover from Atalanta’s Jose Luis Palomino. 

Note that Hojlund is near the halfway line at this point.

As Palomino releases Lookman for Atalanta’s counter-attack, Hojlund is comfortably behind the ball but turns on the afterburners to sprint ahead of everyone in front of him…

… to get himself on the last line of the defence in the centre of the goal within four seconds, positioned perfectly to receive the cross from Lookman…

… for a simple tap-in. 

Through the pace and power of Lookman and Hojlund, Atalanta’s devastating counter-attack went from possession regain to goal within seven seconds.

Gasperini predominantly uses a 3-5-2 system — with an occasional 3-4-3 structure — meaning Hojlund will often have a strike partner to play alongside. His pace and power might suggest he will often be the one on the shoulder of the last defender ready to run in behind.

However, Hojlund will frequently use every inch of his frame to back into defenders, dropping into midfield to hold the ball up and bring others into play before spinning off into space.

A neat example of this is shown against Sampdoria, when Hojlund is on the shoulder of the defence against centre-back Bram Nuytinck. As team-mate Teun Koopmeiners looks up, Hojlund drops into space…

… to receive the ball, attracting Sampdoria players towards him and dragging Nuytinck out of the defensive line.

As Hojlund releases the ball to Jeremie Boga, he instantly looks to dart into the space he has opened up with his movement — now facing goal and running towards the opposition defence.

You might say it is traditional centre-forward play, but it shows the confidence of a 20-year-old to receive the ball in congested areas and disrupt the opposition’s defence. For context, no Serie A forward averages more progressive passes received than Hojlund’s 11.1 per 90.

While his ball retention could be refined when receiving those passes in tighter spaces, it is indicative of the Dane’s style to drop in and look for those vertical passes from the midfield.

Off the ball, Hojlund is not a pressing machine — another attribute that could be developed — but is often alive to pounce on opportunities.

There is no better example of this than Atalanta’s recent trip to Lecce, when Hojlund and his team-mates usher the midfielder Kristoffer Askildsen back into Lecce’s own half.

As the pass is left to run through to the goalkeeper, Hojlund’s eyes light up as he recognises the indecision…

… eating up ground to close down the goalkeeper and make a block/shot that sails into the empty net.

Such is Hojlund’s hurried style of play, defenders can rarely settle on or off the ball when he is around.

Assessing his first full season in Serie A, Hojlund has made light work of stepping up from the Austrian Bundesliga. 

If he were to move on from Bergamo this summer, he would be joining his fourth club in nearly two years, having spent only six months at Sturm Graz before his move to Italy. 

In truth, centre forwards of Hojlund’s profile are in demand across Europe with many elite clubs looking for a long-term fix to their attacking line, including Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. His rise to prominence has hardly come at a better time. 

For Hojlund, the remit is now to push on and get better and better — a sentiment encouraged by his manager after Atalanta’s 3-1 win over Cremonese.

“He has very important qualities and he has demonstrated them,” said Gasperini. “He is very young and he must not think that he has nothing more to learn. The stairs to improve are endless, he must not lose humility and mentality.”

Hojlund is nowhere near the peak of his powers but has shown signs that he could be one of Europe’s elite strikers for the next decade.

Not Erling Haaland 2.0, but Rasmus Hojlund 1.0.

(Top photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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