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Maurits Kjaergaard: The Kaka-inspired teenager shining at Salzburg

12:00 BST 12/04/2022
Maurits Kjaergaard NXGN GFX
The 18-year-old has made an impressive start to life in the Austrian champions' first team, and has already found the net in the Champions League

Gone are the days when Red Bull Salzburg could consider themselves an unknown quantity in European football, with the perennial Austrian champions having exploded onto the scene with some swashbuckling performances in the Champions League in recent years.

And not only have they been exciting to watch on the big stage, they have also been able to offer their young squad a clear pathway from junior football all the way to Europe’s top table.

Since that final piece was added to the Salzburg puzzle in 2019, Erling Haaland, Hwang Hee-chan, Dominik Szoboszlai and Patson Daka - among others - have moved on and excelled for club and country, with potential suitors queuing up for the current crop of players, such as Karim Adeyemi and Brenden Aaronson.

Yet, with so many prodigious talents in the ranks at Salzburg, some exceptional youngsters are bound to be left in the shadows.

As the Austrian side’s best ever Champions League run came to a close with a humbling 7-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in March, one goalscorer was relegated to the footnotes for most.

Slamming home a superb consolation goal that night was 18-year-old Maurits Kjaergaard, who became the second-youngest scorer in the competition this season behind only NXGN 2022 winner Jude Bellingham.

It was not just about restoring a touch of pride for his team though, as the goal at the Allianz Arena marked the culmination of a fine few months for the Danish midfielder.

Since the turn of the year, Kjaergaard has taken strides towards the Salzburg starting line up, and placed himself head and shoulders above his peers in the hunt to get noticed in Austria.

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"The first thing I noticed were his technical abilities," Jonathan Hartmann, who coached Kjaergaard at his former club Lyngby, tells GOAL. "He had a sublime touch on the ball, was quick to turn and run, and had extraordinary vision for the decisive passes to find his team-mates’ runs.

"I remember the first time he trained with the first team. He was 15 then, and in the very first drill he pulled off an insane nutmeg of a much more senior player in the team, and everyone just went crazy.

"You could see the raw talent that he had, despite being that much younger.”

Having joined Salzburg from Lyngby in 2019 after the Austrian side paid €2.6 million (£2.3m/$2.9m) to secure the signing, Kjaergaard began exhibiting those technical traits, scoring seven goals and laying on 14 assists for Salzburg's second-tier feeder team, FC Liefering.

That helped him earn the trust of Salzburg coach Matthias Jaissle, and his breakthrough into the first team has led to results at Bundesliga level too, with Kjaergaard’s blonde locks and confident strides catching the eye on his bursting runs into opposition territory, leading to eight direct goal involvements in his first 20 senior games.

“Playing at Liefering is a really good concept," Kjaergaard tells GOAL. "At such a young age, you can play against men in a professional league week-in, week-out, it’s perfect.

"I’m a fast player with good technique and vision. I looked up to Kaka, the way he played was inspirational to me, the way he controlled the ball. He didn’t have that many tricks, but he ran with speed and vision, and combined that with his shooting. I really enjoyed the way he played.”

Kjaergaard already has a touch of Kaka’s style to his own game, and shades of a young Kevin De Bruyne are beginning to show themselves too, as he drags players out wide and opens up opportunities for forwards in other areas.

He possesses a gliding dribbling style that is both easy on the eye, and can leave opponents flat-footed as he strides by them.

As the best players show, though, it is one thing to go past someone at full pace, but it is another to have the composure to pick out the right pass afterwards, something which Kjaergaard’s solid assist figures demonstrate.

Technique alone does not equal success of course, but Hartmann has belief in his former pupil.

“He always had an outstanding work ethic," he says. "I see him as a naturally gifted player, but also as a very intelligent young man - the latter being even more important.

"His move to Red Bull Salzburg was proof of his intelligence. I’m sure he could have gone to a more famous club, but he saw them as the perfect place to grow as a player.”

That Kjaergaard has developed at Salzburg is unquestionable. His rise from Lyngby’s youth team to the Champions League scoresheet has taken place in less than three seasons.

In 2021, Salzburg tied him down to a new contract lasting until the summer of 2024, but that has not prevented interest from Serie A, primarily from Juventus and Bologna if recent rumours are to be believed.

For now though, it looks like Kjaergaard is happy with his lot in Salzburg.

“I felt great moving here. I was thinking about my development," he explains. "The things that I needed to learn were the things that Salzburg had in focus in their playing style; winning 50/50 duels against the ball, making high speed runs at the opponents, pressing, just getting used to this high tempo every day and trying to get better step by step.

"Salzburg’s strengths were my weaknesses. If I can learn them, I’ll be a better player.”

Given the club’s track record of cultivating young players with a steep development curve, Salzburg seems like the perfect place for a teenager like Kjaergaard to stick around a while longer.

‘When I started playing I was just having fun," he concludes. "I still have fun now. My team-mates here have special gifts and I just enjoy watching them every day. I’ll keep doing my best, having fun, and we’ll see what happens.”

If the time does come for Kjaergaard to move on, his combination of technique, willingness to improve, and all-round positivity mean that you would back the young Dane to settle in well somewhere else.

And with a gleaming shop window like the one that Salzburg offer their young stars, there should be no shortage of destinations on offer for Kjaergaard in the future.

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