Can Patson Daka follow the Haaland and Mane path to greatness?
For all that there can be no objectively good consequence of a global pandemic, Zambia international Patson Daka might have been grateful to see the runaway train that is modern football slow down a bit.
The high-profile departure of all-round battering ram Erling Haaland from Red Bull Salzburg suddenly saw the 21-year-old thrust into the spotlight, tasked with being the leading man where he had previously so successfully been a supporting act.
Since the wonderkid went to bigger things at Borussia Dortmund, RB Salzburg have suffered a quite predictable slump, losing at home to title rivals LASK and falling six points behind in the league table. Even worse, Daka was guilty of missing a handful of presentable opportunities in that 2-3 defeat, prompting comparisons (both intentional and otherwise) to the departed 19-year-old.
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Manager Jesse Marsch was sympathetic in the aftermath, reiterating his belief in the player’s ability to carry the team.
“He is still young, and it is important that he doesn't let his confidence be affected by this game,” said the American coach, "but he knows how to handle it and was excellent in the winter training camp over the last six weeks. He is an important player for us.”
In those circumstances, Daka could be forgiven for enjoying the opportunity to simply exhale, to step away from the immediate pressure for a while and steel himself for the run-in whenever it does eventually happen.
Replacing the Norwegian’s prodigious output was always going to be a daunting prospect, but more than even that is the stylistic challenge: good enough that Daka has himself scored 20 goals in 34 appearances in all competitions this season, but now he is having to front a team that had gone up a level based on Haaland’s sheer physical presence.
The Zambian is an altogether suppler, lither presence upfront; just as explosive across the ground but somehow less dead-eye, less a relentless terminator inexorably honing in on the goal.
Clearly then, there is an adaptation both ways. In order for Salzburg to hit the same heights, they will necessarily have to meet in the middle – Marsch fashioning more varied routes to goal for the team, and Daka himself evolving into a proper protagonist upfront.
Beyond even the necessity of keeping the team competitive, there is an added fillip for the player too: in evolving a more complete style, he would also place himself ideally to follow the same path that Haaland, and before him Takumi Minamino and Sadio Mane have taken: from Salzburg to the big time.
That, more than anything else, is the legacy of the club’s forward-thinking philosophy, recently bolstered even further by Marsch’s commitment to attacking regardless of the opposition.
The willingness to go at the opponent anyway, especially on an elevated stage like the Champions League, eliminates one of the major stigmas that typically surrounds buying from a weaker league – the adaptability of players to a higher level, both technically and mentally.
That meant that the European champions Liverpool had little compunction with taking on Minamino and Mane (the latter by way of Southampton), while Bundesliga title challengers Dortmund thought little of turfing out a full Spanish international in Paco Alcacer in order to install Haaland at the forefront of their attacking force.
Minamino aside – and his adaptation has clearly not been helped by coming into a successful club with an established 11 in January – the moves have been unqualified successes: Mane has excelled in his time at Anfield, and Haaland has taken to Dortmund’s attacking game with typical gusto.
It is a familiar, gilded path, and sure enough clubs around Europe are paying close attention, anticipating the next attacker to snag off the production line. Demonstrating he can carry that burden would go a long way toward convincing prospective suitors he is ready for a higher level.