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Joshua Zirkzee transfer target: Man Utd and AC Milan want Bologna forward but what makes him so good?

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Netherlands forward Joshua Zirkzee has impressed at Bologna, emerging as a transfer target for Manchester United and AC Milan but why is he so in demand? Adam Bate speaks to the player’s former coach at Anderlecht to find out more…

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Joshua Zirkzee is different. At 6’4”, he looks like a target man but he has the feet of a playmaker and the pace to run the channels. Manchester United are one of a number of clubs wondering whether this unique skill set is just what they need.

At 23, Zirkzee has enjoyed a breakthrough season with Bologna, helping the Italian club to qualify for Europe’s elite competition for the first time in 60 years. He has been rewarded with a late call-up to Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands squad for Euro 2024.

The numbers are impressive. Zirkzee ranked among the top 10 players in Serie A this past season for goals from open play, chances created from open play and successful dribbles. It is just a hint at the all-around threat that he poses to opposition defences.

Bologna's Joshua Zirkzee and his Serie A season in stats
Image:Zirkzee showed himself to be a scorer and creator of goals in Serie A

But this is about more than those numbers, this is about potential too, and a player whose profile is difficult to replicate in the market. He has taken a big step forward recently but he has long been identified as someone capable of things others are not.

Zirkzee moved to Bayern Munich aged just 16, scoring in a friendly fixture against Paris Saint-Germain at 17. He scored four Bundesliga goals but found it challenging to force his way in as a teenager. It was a step up for him physically but also psychologically.

“He went at a very young age and that can sometimes be a problem for players,” Willem Weijs tells Sky Sports. “They believe that it is only about skills and scoring goals and playing nice football but professional football demands other things of players.”

Weijs is speaking in general terms but knows his game better than most having been part of the coaching staff at Anderlecht, the club that Zirkzee joined on loan from Bayern for the 2021/22 season. It was the season in which the boy wonder became a man.

“What professional football asks from you mentally and physically, that is another thing compared to youth football,” Weijs explains. “It was quite clear that he was really talented but he had to make a transition. That season at Anderlecht helped him a lot.”

Under Vincent Kompany, Zirkzee scored 18 goals and provided 13 assists. Weijs talks of a volcano being ready to erupt. “It was tough at the start because teams in Belgium try to make it a really physical battle. But in the end he became used to it. He exploded.”

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Weijs worked particularly closely with him because Kompany’s Anderlecht went with a mentorship system. Every member of the technical staff was assigned a small group of players and Zirkzee was a natural fit as a fellow Dutchman abroad. It still took time.

“I had to work hard to build that relationship and gain his confidence because he was not too open at first. He needs to feel the love. He wants to be respected. But when you invest in that relationship with him and he feels like he can trust you, he opens up.”

Weijs recalls conversations about other sports. “He is a big basketball fan.” And longer discussions about his game and his career. “We would review clips, have discussions about his confidence, about his role in the team, those kind of things.”

Having seen him up close, what makes him so good?

“He has a good physique but it is his skill. His technical abilities in tiny spaces are really spectacular. He is so comfortable on the ball. His first touch is always soft. That means he creates a lot of time for himself to find solutions in complicated situations.”

He has been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic because of his height, skill and flair. Ranking third in Serie A for lay-off passes last season highlights his hold-up play. At Anderlecht, he wowed team-mates with his finishing during training sessions.

“He was outstanding by the end,” says Weijs.

 Joshua Zirkzee of RSC Anderlecht during the Croky Cup Final match between KAA Gent and RSC Anderlecht at the Koning Boudewijnstadion on April 18, 2022 in Brussel, Belgium
Image:Zirkzee impressed during his season on loan at Anderlecht under Vincent Kompany

During the second half of that season in Belgium, it became obvious that Zirkzee had learned all that he could from the experience. “The training sessions at Anderlecht, they just became too easy for him. It was really clear that he was ready for the next step.”

That next step was Bologna. It was a return to Serie A, where he had previously endured a far less successful loan spell with Parma, making only four substitute appearances. Not everyone was convinced it was the right move. “I had some doubts,” admits Weijs.

He need not have worried. Bologna was the right club. Zirkzee has blossomed this season, a key component in one of the most exciting sides in European football. “I think he had a pretty good coach as well.” Thiago Motta, who interestingly sees more of Ronaldinho in him than Ibrahimovic, has taken his game to another level.

Joshua Zirkzee's positioning and shooting for Bologna in the 2023/24 Serie A season
Image:Joshua Zirkzee’s positioning and shooting for Bologna in the 2023/24 Serie A season

In particular, Zirkzee has significantly improved his off-the-ball work, becoming a force in the game without the football. Playing in a pressing team, he ranked top in Serie A for high turnovers this past season and second for possession won in the final third.

“That is a little example of the transition that I was talking about – from youth player to professional player. That is working hard, mentality, growth mindset, transition game, intensity. Looking back, you can only say that Bologna was the perfect step for him.”

What will be the next step? Milan are seen as front-runners but United have the money to make him theirs and the next Ibrahimovic would certainly appeal to both clubs. A player who can press high, hold the ball up and score goals will always be in demand.

“Now, there is a lot of interest,” says Weijs. The volcano has erupted.

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