Yussuf Yurary Poulsen: The Rise of RB Leipzig’s Great Dane

Yussuf Yurary Poulsen is the son of a Danish mother and a Tanzanian father – the latter lost a battle with cancer when Yussuf was just six years old. Despite being legible to represent Tanzania, he chose to play for Denmark, even though the Tanzania Football Federation never made contact. When playing for the Danish National team, he bears the name ‘Yurary’ instead of ‘Poulsen’ in honour of his late father. 

Until the age of 12, Poulsen actually played as a defender at BK Skjold where he began playing football. It was only when another future Danish international Kenneth Zohore transferred to FC Copenhagen that he moved to the striker position. Just two years later, he joined Lyngby BK – a club famed for producing offensive Danish talents and giving them the chance of first-team football. Here he made his senior debut in the Danish Superliga in 2011 as a 17-year-old. 

In the summer of 2011, Yurary participated in the European Under-17 Championship as Denmark had qualified for the first time since 2003. In the tournament, he was mainly used as a substitute but started in the third group match where the Danes managed a 1-0 win against France.

In the following season in the Danish first division, Yussuf Yurary Poulsen was a regular in the line-up, scoring 11 goals and adding 4 assists to his name in his first full senior season. This caused the interest in Yurary to grow and RB Leipzig managed to pick up the Danish youth international for €1.3 million ahead of the 2013/14 season, where the club was to compete in the 3. Bundesliga as a newly promoted club.

The transfer caught the attention of the Danish tabloids, with them mainly focusing on the downside of choosing ‘a step down’ to a foreign third tier. However, in his first season in Leipzig, Poulsen silenced some of the critics when he produced 10 goals and 7 assists, introducing himself as a central figure in their direct promotion to the 2. Bundesliga at the end of the season.

The success of Yussuf Yurary Poulsen in his maiden campaign was followed up by the surprising promotion of RB Leipzig within two seasons in the 2. Bundesliga to reach the Bundesliga. In that time, Poulsen’s tally amounted to 18 goals and 9 assists in 61 matches. 

Life in the Bundesliga got off to a flying start with a 13-match unbeaten run, a new Bundesliga record for a promoted side. In a fast-paced attack, Poulsen teamed up with Timo Werner who had joined the club in the summer – a combined threat that soon got the better of most of the opponents’ defences. The goal contribution from this partnership was, fair to say, very one-sided as he scored once in his first 20 league appearances. However, despite not being a prolific goalscorer, the Dane justified his regular role by being key to the club’s defensive tactics which rose to fame for provoking the opponent to errors – leading Die Roten Bullen to score 18 goals in the first 30 matches as a result of a turnover. 

His importance to the team in the first Bundesliga season was underlined when he returned to the team sheet straight after recovery from a torn muscle bundle that kept him sidelined for five matches. After this injury, the Dane played in the remaining nine matches, scoring four and assisting thrice as the season drew to a close and Die Roten Bullen finished runners-up. 

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Yussuf Yurary Poulsen battles with Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Baumgartlinger in RB Leipzig’s first Bundesliga season. [Getty Images]
In the 2017/18 Bundesliga season, Poulsen was given fewer playing minutes compared to the first campaign and found himself being used as a regular substitute instead. Going through a season that also required RB Leipzig to compete in both the Champions League and the Europa League, the Dane experienced a goal drought of 19 matches. When asked by the Danish newspaper ‘Tipsbladet’ about this situation, the Dane replied: “I’m not worried. I’m not Sergio Agüero.”

When unable to provide the team with regular goals (five goals last season) Poulsen always brings his energetic style and managed to create 29 shots on goals for his team-mates after winning the ball from the opponent. In total he provided nine assists in the total of 41 matches. This makes him a valuable asset to the team’s dynamic play style and great collective value. That season he found himself ranked in the squad’s top three in duels won, behind only Naby Keïta, and behind centre-back pairing Willi Orban and Dayot Upamecano in aerial duels won. 

For his country Yussuf Yurary Poulsen was a regular youth international, recording 57 caps and 18 goals throughout his development years. In October 2014 he made his senior national team debut as a sub, coming in Denmark’s 1-1 European Championship qualifier versus Albania. Just under four years later in 2018, he was a trusted starter in Åge Hareide World Cup line-up, despite giving away two controversial VAR-penalties in as many games and receiving a red card while a right winger. 

A year after signing a contract extension until 2022, the Danish forward was linked with a move to the Premier League this summer. However, he remained at the club where he will be under the stewardship of a familiar face in Ralf Rangnick, a man credited for the discovery of Poulsen.  The caretaker head coach may well be what he needs to get into the form that kept him going in his early days at the fast-rising club in the third tier, where many were trying to figure out who this unknown entity was.

[Photo: Motivio/Thomas Eisenhuth]

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