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It was, all things considered, a strong Crystal Palace side. Roy Hodgson made a few changes for the visit of Grimsby Town for an FA Cup third-round tie in January 2019, but regular first-teamers like Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend, Jeff Schlupp were all included in the starting XI. Hodgson also gave a chance to some fringe members of his squad, with Max Meyer, Jairo Riedewald, and Joel Ward among those hoping to impress their manager and earn themselves more minutes in the Premier League.
Alexander Sorloth also belonged to that group. He had yet to start a match in the English top-flight that season, and it was thought that an outing against fourth-tier opposition was just what the Norwegian needed to rebuild his confidence and rediscover his scoring touch. Unfortunately for Sorloth, things did not go to plan. He spent an hour on the pitch before being replaced by Connor Wickham, with Palace having to wait until the 86th minute to finally break the deadlock against a gutsy Grimsby outfit.
Sorloth was poor that afternoon. He had a header cleared off the line and forced a save from goalkeeper James McKeown, but he should have converted at least one of those efforts. He also offered little in open play, curiously unable to make the most of his hulking physique and aerial power. It was the story of his Palace career, which would in effect be over after this game. Indeed, although he only left the club permanently last month, Sortloth never pulled on their red-and-blue shirt after the Grimsby watch.
No Palace fan back then could have envisaged the striker being the subject of a €20 million transfer just 18 months later. But that is exactly how Sorloth’s career has turned out, with the 24-year-old joining RB Leipzig – a recent Champions League semi-finalist, no less – last month. Despite seeming out of his depth in the Premier League, Sorloth has become Leipzig’s replacement for Timo Werner, one of the best strikers in Europe.
Palace first brought Sorloth to the club in January 2018, paying £9 million for his services. Few in England had heard of him prior to his arrival, but a record of 14 goals in 25 matches for Midtjylland offered hope that he could make a positive impression in south London. He was one of the first batches of signings made by sporting director Dougie Freedman, a former Palace manager who was tasked with uncovering hidden gems from around Europe.
Sorloth made his debut in a 3-1 defeat by Everton, when he at least put himself about and used his physique to try and unsettle the opposition backline. However, while it could be argued that Hodgson did not give him sufficient opportunities to prove his worth – he started just four times in the top flight – most of the Norwegian’s appearances for Palace were underwhelming. That listless showing against Grimsby was not a one-off, and it was no surprise to see him sent on loan to Gent shortly after that FA Cup tie.
Sorloth spent the remainder of the 2018/19 campaign in Belgium and ended his time there with an unspectacular return of five goals in 22 games. Palace seemed open to selling him on a permanent basis that summer, before settling for a season-long loan deal that would take the center-forward to Turkey. Trabzonspor were the beneficiaries, but even the most optimistic of the club’s supporters could not have anticipated Sorloth having the impact he did.
The loanee was a sensational signing. He notched 24 goals in 34 Super Lig games as Trabzonspor finished second, just four points behind surprise champions Istanbul Basaksehir. No one in the division found the back of the net as often as the Palace outcast, who also scored seven goals in cup competitions and twice in Europe. In the end, Trabzonspor only got a share of the €20 million transfer fee, with Palace taking a sizeable cut for a player of whom they are now asking: ‘what if?’
Werner’s departure ahead of the current campaign was inevitable. Available for a fixed fee of €53 million due to the release clause in his contract, Chelsea won the race for his signature. Leipzig started the season with Yussuf Poulsen in the role vacated by Werner, but the arrival of Sorloth before the transfer deadline means he will be expected to be Leipzig’s chief goal-getter during 2020/21.
Sorloth made his debut as a substitute in the 4-0 thrashing of crisis club Schalke before the international break. Emil Forsberg was the surprise choice to start upfront, with the midfielder often dropping deep to get on the ball and allow runners beyond him. Sorloth will be hoping to be in the starting XI when Leipzig take on Augsburg this weekend, as Julian Nagelsmann’s side look to make it 10 points from a possible 12 at the start of the season.
Sorloth will interpret the role differently to Werner. The now-Chelsea frontman is lightning quick and routinely positioned himself on the shoulder of the last defender, ready to sprint in behind the opposition backline. He also liked to drift to the left to pick up possession, before driving at the defense. At 6ft 4in Sorloth is much bigger than Werner and does not have his scintillating speed, although he is not slow and is capable of leading the press – a vital skill for any Leipzig striker.
Leipzig are top of the table after three matches, but they are still only third-favorites to win the Bundesliga title this term – you can back Nagelsmann’s men at +1800 with DraftKings Sporstbook, compared to +600 for Borussia Dortmund and -835 for perennial champions Bayern Munich. Sorloth is offered at the lengthier price of +5000 to finish top scorer, although only Andrej Kramaric, Erling Haaland, Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski are available at shorter odds.
Beating the likes of Haaland and Lewandowski to that prize would complete a dramatic turnaround for the Crystal Palace reject.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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