What Benjamin Sesko’s new contract means for top clubs – and who could they now turn to?


The speculation about Benjamin Sesko’s future is now over after he agreed to a new RB Leipzig contract.

As The Athletic’s DealSheet made clear on Tuesday, Sesko was a key target for a number of top sides — including Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. But after just one season in Leipzig for Sesko — who joined from Red Bull Salzburg, another club from within the Red Bull network, in July 2021 — he has decided to stay with his current club.

According to sources close to Sesko, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships, it was seen as best for his development to stay in the Bundesliga for another year. There was no desire to change his environment and he enjoys the Red Bull family. The terms of Sesko’s new contract are an improvement on the old one, but still not as much as the 21-year-old might have earned in the Premier League.

Sesko enjoyed a good first season in the Bundesliga and ended it by scoring in seven straight games, but that was not reflective of the full season year. By his admission, Sesko is still adjusting to the difference in speed between the Austrian and German Bundesligas. He has work to do in becoming an all-round forward capable of contributing outside the penalty box.

Last season was also a year of transition for Leipzig, who lost half a team’s worth of talent — including Christopher Nkunku, Dominik Szoboszlai and Josko Gvardiol — last summer. Leipzig can expect less disruption in the upcoming transfer window, while Sesko will still be paired with Lois Openda, another of Europe’s great developing forwards.


Sesko with Openda (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

While Arsenal were in pole position to move for Sesko if he decided to leave Leipzig this summer, they were aware throughout the process that there was a strong possibility he stayed. With Eddie Nketiah one of several options backing up Kai Havertz, who scored nine goals in his final 14 games of the Premier League season, including Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard, Arsenal are well-stocked at the point of attack.

They are expected to remain active in the market for an attacker, but they are not entirely wedded to a No. 9, meaning they could look at investing in other areas of the attack.

Among the names linked with Arsenal is Pedro Neto, a player the north London club has long been interested in. The 24-year-old’s stock has decreased slightly in recent seasons, as ankle and hamstring injuries have caused him to miss significant time on the field. Still, Neto managed to record 11 assists in 24 games for Wolves this season, highlighting his final-third quality when fit and available.

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Slightly further afield, Nico Williams is another winger Arsenal are keeping tabs on. The 21-year-old is expected to play a significant role for Spain this summer at Euro 2024 after a strong season with Athletic Bilbao, where he registered 11 goal contributions in 31 matches. Though he has primarily featured from the left at club level, Williams is tricky, pacy and capable of going both ways, which would provide competition and cover on either wing. Still, a forward may have to depart for Arsenal to accelerate recruitment in attack.

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While Arsenal are well-stocked in forward areas, United need reinforcements in attack after Anthony Martial’s exit as a free-agent was confirmed after nine years and 209 league appearances. His departure leaves Rasmus Hojlund as the only senior out-and-out striker.

Given Hojlund’s improved goalscoring after opening his Premier League account on Boxing Day, United might be better suited to recruiting a more experienced option who is more content with not playing every week. This would give Hojlund the time to build on his first season while allowing for rest and rotation. They are, however, interested in 23-year-old Bologna centre-forward Joshua Zirkzee after a breakout season in Serie A.

Zirkzee primarily featured as a lone striker under Thiago Motta last season as Bologna achieved Champions League qualification with a fifth-place finish. Having developed as a player at Barcelona, Motta’s coaching philosophy appears strongly influenced by the footballing principles at Camp Nou, and Zirkzee thrived in his attack as a false nine.

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Zirkzee celebrating after scoring a goal for Bologna (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

He frequently picks up positions away from the opposition’s defensive line and receives the ball up from deep, and he is not afraid to take players on from central or wide areas. Unlike most other central strikers of a similar height (6ft 3in) and physical stature, Zirkzee is a fluid dribbler who glides past defenders. He can receive the ball with his back to goal or on the half turn and can turn his marker or bring team-mates into the fold with outstanding hold-up play.

“He said that his idols are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gabriel Batistuta, who are two excellent players, but, seeing him day-to-day, he reminds me of the Ronaldinho I played with at Barcelona,“ Motta said. ”But I cannot compare him to anyone. He is just Joshua, and he is special.“

Bayern Munich academy product Zirkzee is yet to register a 20-goal season. But he did hit 11 in 34 matches for Bologna last season and 16 in 38 for Anderlecht in Belgium’s first division in the 2021-22 campaign. He is clearly not a stranger to scoring goals in professional football.

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Undoubtedly, increasing his goal output is something fans of the Premier League’s top clubs would desire, but Zirkzee has demonstrated enough variety of finishing with both feet to suggest the goals could start coming at a more regular rate.

While Sesko does not seem the ideal profile for United, given that he is the same age as Hojlund and had similar teething problems in his early period in the Bundesliga, he may have suited Chelsea’s project better — and the west London club had been looking at him for over a year.

Chelsea would like to sell Armando Broja and Romelu Lukaku after periods away on loan. Christopher Nkunku, who starred in pre-season before an injury-hit first campaign in England, is preferred as an option to play off a No. 9 rather than provide the focal point of attack himself. This leaves Nicolas Jackson, who ended the season in good goalscoring form after struggling in the early months, as their only option to lead the line.

For this reason, Chelsea are in the market for another centre-forward to provide competition in that area. They will not move for Victor Osimhen, who scored 15 goals in 25 league appearances for Napoli last season, with the Serie A club’s asking price a stumbling point. Similarly, Chelsea will not move for Viktor Gyokeres, who scored 29 league goals in his debut season for Sporting Lisbon following a move from Coventry City in the Championship.

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Duran is an option for Chelsea (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Despite his relative inexperience, Aston Villa’s Jhon Duran is among the names under consideration by the west London club. The 20-year-old Colombia international made just two league starts for Unai Emery last season but scored five goals, including a brace off the bench at home to Liverpool in the penultimate game of the Premier League season.

Like Sesko, Duran is powerfully built and tall, standing at 6ft 1in. He ticks many of the same boxes as the Slovenian and, crucially, has proven he can score goals in the Premier League. This sets him apart from many of Europe’s most in-demand young strikers. With Ollie Watkins leading the line at Villa Park, Duran might find opportunities few and far between in Villa’s biggest games next season, and he is keen for more playing opportunities.

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Stylistically, he is quite different to Jackson, potentially bringing another dimension to Maresca’s attack. Duran’s representatives have previously visited Cobham, Chelsea’s training ground, but he remains just one of several players on Chelsea’s list this summer.

What’s clear is that Sesko’s decision has prompted several Premier League clubs to reassess the market. Will they move for different targets this summer, or, with another year in the Bundesliga under Sesko’s belt, should they wait a year to get their man?

A standout Euro campaign with Slovenia could tempt them to hold their horses.

(Top photo: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)

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