It’s November 25, 2020. A young German winger stands on the touchline anxiously waiting to step on to the Allianz Arena pitch for his Champions League debut in his hometown.
But as he waits to be allowed on, there are people watching both on television and in the largely empty stands who know this isn’t how it should’ve been.
Rather than wearing the all-red of Bayern Munich, Karim Adeyemi jogs on in the all-black of Salzburg with the Austrian champions 3-0 down.
A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany’s most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3million when he was 16.
Adeyemi had left Bayern six years earlier and is a situation that has dominated much of his early professional career, with questions about why he left never far away.
Now 19, Adeyemi has previously spoken at length about his attitude as a kid, how learning wasn’t much to his liking and distraction was a regular nuisance to him.
— FC Red Bull Salzburg EN (@FCRBS_en) December 1, 2020
These factors certainly didn’t help at Bayern. Neither, Adeyemi alleged in the past, did the club showing little support to players who strayed from “the plan”. The collective, rather than individualistic talents, was prioritised.
But to speak to him in 2021, Adeyemi comes across as grounded and professional, yet driven, well aware of the level he wants to reach.
“I think it’s a dream for every player to play in the Bundesliga or Premier League one day,” he tells Stats Perform News. Yet, should he end up in England, it’s fair to say he’ll have taken the long route.
Chelsea were a keen admirer of Adeyemi before he joined Salzburg, the youngster confirming in the past that he turned down a move to Stamford Bridge in favour of Austria.
“I decided that with my family because I thought that Salzburg was the best destination for me,” he continued. “Their playing style fits me well and we harmonised perfectly. I got along well with Christoph Freund [Salzburg sporting director] and everyone else. That’s why I decided to join this club.”
But while the average football fan might question his choice, Adeyemi’s former coach at Unterhaching – with whom he spent the six years between Bayern and Salzburg – believes it was a mature decision that made perfect sense.
“Surprised? No, not at all. For him, Salzburg was the right club,” Marc Unterberger told Stats Perform News. “Their philosophy suits him perfectly, and the proximity to Unterhaching, where his family still lives, is ideal.
“What is being done there, especially in training young players, is absolutely remarkable.”
But what exactly has that meant for Adeyemi? The teenager adds: “It was my plan to first join Liefering [on loan] when I arrived at Salzburg. I wanted to perform well there and show my skills, then I wanted to have more and more contact with the first team [at Salzburg], and I think for every young player it’s first of all important to get settled. Now I am at the first team and I am happy about it. That was my plan so far.”
After spending a year and a half at Liefering, who essentially act as a B team for Salzburg, Adeyemi returned to his parent club having caught the eye in Austria’s second tier.
He scored 15 goals and got eight assists in 35 league games for Liefering, strong evidence that he was ready for the step up.
Adeyemi hasn’t been quite so explosive with Salzburg, only having a hand in goals in six of his 29 Austrian Bundesliga matches, but the key factor here is that he is having to remain patient – only nine of those 29 games were as a starter.
“Well, you can never be completely satisfied,” he explained. “You always have things to improve. It was the same for me when I played in Liefering. I always want more. It’s exactly the same here in the first team. I always say I am never satisfied with what I do, I always want more, and I think that’s what I am focusing on.
“I am trying to improve my game together with the coaching staff. I’m trying to have progress in my development. Nobody knows what happens in the future.”
It is a display of maturity and realism that belies many of the stories that have followed Adeyemi during his fledgling career. Unterberger believes the youngster is often shown in a negative light, adamant most kids are prone to distraction.
“I find that he is portrayed too negatively. Of course, Karim wasn’t a classic academy player. He had his own thoughts on how to deal with things. We never wanted to change him completely, and I think we succeeded quite well. Karim is a really great guy and a great person.
“Until the time Karim came to us, we had never had such an exceptional player in our youth division. Of course, as a young person, you benefit from being accepted for who you are, but I would like to make it very clear that there was no situation within the team in which Karim behaved in such a way that we as a club were forced to act. On the contrary, over time he developed more and more towards putting himself at the service of the team.
“He was easily distracted, that’s right, but let’s be honest, something like this is normal when young people develop.”
After all, Unterberger arguably knows Adeyemi better than any other coach.
“I can still remember it very well, the first time I saw him play in an Under-11 tournament,” he recalls. “Back then he was still playing for TSV Forstenried. My first thought was: ‘We absolutely need this player’. Fortunately, it worked out later!”
That might be something of an understatement in reality. The €3m fee that Unterhaching received made him the most expensive German under-18 player ever, while 2019 saw him win the Fritz-Walter Gold Medal, an award handed out to Germany’s best youth player. Previous winners include Timo Werner, Emre Can and Mario Gotze.
— FC Red Bull Salzburg EN (@FCRBS_en) March 23, 2021
And he has certainly shown flashes of his significant potential. In November, he became the first player this season to have a hand in four goals (one scored, three set up) in a single game in the Austrian Bundesliga. Only one other has matched that feat this term: his team-mate, Mergim Berisha. In December, he broke Salzburg’s record for their youngest ever scorer in the Champions League.
Yet Adeyemi recognises he still has a long way to go.
“I can only talk for myself and not for the other players. I think if you feel comfortable within a team and you get your chances, then there’s a possibility [of finding the right fit]. That’s how it is between Salzburg and myself. I will continue to work hard for that. I want to develop more and become a man.”
Given the talents Salzburg and their Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig have produced in recent years, few would doubt Adeyemi’s in the right place to spread his wings.
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