Rasmus Winther Højlund: Football’s new Scandinavian scoring sensation by Martin Crawford

Rasmus Winther Højlund: Football’s new Scandinavian scoring sensation by Martin Crawford

At the top level of football, the role of the traditional, powerful, predatory number 9 is currently enjoying something of a renaissance. It could be argued that it never really went away in the first place, but discussions have taken place over whether the rise of wide forwards and false nines has come at a cost of true ‘focal point’ strikers who can overwhelm centre backs and come alive in the opposing penalty area.

The emergence of Erling Haaland as Europe’s hottest property has brought an abrupt end to those discussions. The essence of Erling is that intangible will to score in every instance, paired with his imposing physicality and extraordinary pace. Victor Osimhen’s explosion into becoming one of the world’s best strikers this season can be taken as another fantastic example that target men aren’t just staying present in the modern game – they’re blossoming.

The newest ferocious forward to have Europe talking was being used mainly as a substitute in Denmark just over a year ago. Upon leaving his home country for Sturm Graz in search of a starting role, Rasmus Winther Højlund wasn’t interested in taking his time in settling in Austria – he quickly got down to doing what he does better than most: scoring goals.

Four strikes in his first three appearances in the Admiral Bundesliga likely alarmed his previous employers at FC Copenhagen that they may have made a mistake in selling the then-teenager for a fee of around 2.5 million euros. In the first six months of his 2021–22 season, Højlund had started just a single league match for his hometown club. Switching to Styria midway through the campaign, at its conclusion he was indispensable for a club which had secured a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds.

“It’s no secret that I love Copenhagen,” he told Tipsbladet after departing the Danish capital. “Of course I was sad, but it wasn’t just because of FC Copenhagen. I had to say goodbye to my girlfriend, my friends and my family, I had to adapt to life in another country. Of course I would’ve liked to had that breakthrough, but I am happy with the step. I am well-staged.”

The 2022–23 season always looked destined to be an exciting one, as Rasmus embarked on his first full season following a sensational six months in Graz. In typical fashion, he rapidly got into goalscoring gear in the opening matchdays, most notably with an electric brace against reigning league champions Red Bull Salzburg. However, media reports began to question whether he could be on the move in a second consecutive transfer window, as clubs became increasingly tempted by his outrageous form.

In the end, the sensational move did happen, the destination being Serie A side Atalanta. In just over half a season, Højlund had gone from commanding a €2.5m fee to a record-breaking €17 million, a truly remarkable growth in status which turned heads throughout Europe. Arriving in an elite league as a teenager on a five-year deal, he could easily have been judged to be one for the future. However, if his lightning impact in Austria was anything to go by, the youngster was never going to wait too long before making his mark.

Once again, it was a case of first start, first goal against Monza in September. A senior Denmark debut soon followed, but it was after the mid-season World Cup break when the most recent breakthrough arrived. Seven post-break strikes in a dazzling run of form ensured that after missing out on involvement in Qatar, he was a starter for his country in the next international break – and his contributions in those two matches were the latest, but perhaps most defining, summits reached in his remarkable young career so far.

Denmark scored five goals in their opening two matches in Euro 2024 qualifying, and 20 year-old Højlund scored all of them. It is difficult to name a player in world football whose stock has risen as quickly in the months since the World Cup, with the talismanic forward having firmly cemented himself as an overnight superstar for his country. This phenomenal ascension has been the mark of a phenomenal footballer – but just how has the 6ft 3 wonderkid caused so much damage to so many defences already, and what makes him such a rare talent?

At the surface level, it is easy to draw comparisons between Højlund and Haaland, not only due to their curiously similar surnames. They are both strikingly tall, left-footed Scandinavians, possessing devastating pace and capable of lethal finishes. Whilst comparing any striker to the Manchester City man is plainly unfair at the moment, it is no surprise that their names are being mentioned together given how valuable and uncommon strikers of their skillsets can be.

What distinguishes Rasmus from Haaland – and most strikers of his height for that matter – is his confidence in his footwork. Given his deadly ability to accelerate away from defenders, it is no surprise that he often fancies himself in take-ons, averaging 1.13 per 90 at the time of writing – almost triple that of Haaland. His activity on the ball ensures that he is not just a punctuation mark at the end of attacks; he can also bring them to life by taking defenders out of the game.

It unsurprisingly isn’t the only strength of his game though. Højlund’s off-the-ball threat is obscene – far beyond his years. Placed in the top one percent of strikers in Europe for progressive passes received per 90, his similarly elite averages for xG per shot and impressively low number of offsides underpin that Atalanta have a truly relentless and intuitive mover in their frontline.

And when presented with chances to score, his scoring record speaks for itself. Accurate, confident and ruthless in front of goal, the 20-year-old makes it easy to forget his age when it comes to the area of the game often labelled the hardest. His already plentiful goal catalogue is a treat to watch – seeing defenders hopelessly exposed by his unstoppable bursts and goalkeepers repeatedly incapable of reacting to his clinical strikes leaves the impression that this is a striker destined for a career of goalscoring.

Such strengths make Højlund a dream for La Dea’s famously attack-minded manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, who has seen countless exciting attacking players blossom under his tutorship since taking over at the Bergamo side in 2016. As legendary club figures Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata enter the twilight of their careers, their places in the Atalanta attack appear ready to be inherited in the long term by the flying Dane as well as fellow successful summer signing Ademola Lookman, granted that the pair aren’t tempted away by potential suitors.

Given his proven tendency to burst into goalscoring form when surrounded by new scenery, as well as the current state of play which will see many of Europe’s biggest clubs on the lookout for strikers this summer, Rasmus’ name seems nailed on to be firmly in the rumour mill once transfer activity recommences. It would be foolish to put any ceiling on his potential considering the extremely quick strides he has made, but the question can surely still be asked about whether a longer stint at a club would aid his development ahead of a potential shot with the elites.

When it came to deciding on what his dream move would be however, he made his ambition absolutely clear. “Now that you ask, I will not hide the fact that I am a huge Manchester United fan,” he said earlier this year. “So personally, it would be one of the biggest things for me, but of course that doesn’t mean that I would turn down other big clubs if the offers come at some point.”

The comments understandably started lots of conversations among Red Devils fans, with Erik Ten Hag’s intention to add a striker ahead of next season well publicised. Reports in Denmark have also begun to claim ‘concrete’ interest from the Old Trafford club, but they will not be the only ones watching Højlund closely with a view to a potential move which with all likelihood would blow his previous price-tags out of the water.

Whatever the future may hold, the manner in which Rasmus Winther Højlund has forced his way into continental recognition over the last year-and-a-bit has been nothing short of spectacular. A 20-year-old prodigy gifted with elite athleticism, laser-sharp finishing and shrewd understanding of the game, it is little wonder that he is currently one of the most exciting footballers in Europe.

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