Sead Haksabanovic to follow Freddie Ljungberg's footsteps at West Ham
Fredrik Ljungberg may now have a legitimate heir. The energetic midfielder is the most successful and popular Swedish player in Premier League history (even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's single season at Man United.)
An integral part of Arsenal for nine years, including the unbeaten title run in 2003-04, Ljungberg ended the London part of his career at West Ham, and now the Hammers might have signed the man who can follow his footsteps: Sead Haksabanovic. The 18-year-old is widely regarded as one of the most talented prospects of his age group, and grew up at Freddie's first club, Halmstad.
Ljungberg is a legend in Halmstad, where he spent the first four years of his professional career before signing for Arsenal in 1998, and nobody at the club was good enough to be compared to him until Haksabanovic appeared.
Haksabanovic had trials at Liverpool -- the club he has always supported -- as well as Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. However, instead of joining one of the academies in England he chose to sign a contract with Halmstad in 2014, explaining: "I would benefit from playing with the senior team instead of continuing at youth level."
He was absolutely right. Ljungberg made his first appearance for Halmstad at the age of 17, but Haksabanovic's development had been significantly faster, and he was given the opportunity to shine one month before his 16th birthday, becoming the second-youngest debutant in the history of Allsvenskan.
"It was amazing. He was just 15, but played as though he is 25," Aftonbladet journalist Michael Wagner tells ESPN FC.
Halmstad were relegated that term, but Haksabanovic helped them to go straight back up in the 2016 season, contributing eight goals and seven assists in the second division. He started in all 30 matches, leading the team and played especially well in the playoff games against Helsingborg, coached by Henrik Larsson. Booed by the Helsingborg crowd throughout the return leg, he kept his cool and provided the dramatic assist in the final minute to win the game 2-1 (3-2 on aggregate).
Comparisons to Ljungberg naturally became widespread in those days. "Both are playmakers, and both are quick and technical. Freddie was a bit faster, but Sead is more skillful," Kvallsposten journalist Fredrik Jonsson tells ESPN FC. Haksabanovic himself avoided mentioning Ljungberg as his role model, though. "In terms of playing style, I would like to say Ronaldinho," he answered when asked about his idol, and that is a decent observation.
Like the Brazilian superstar, Haksabanovic is versatile, able to play centrally and on the wings. He is a dead-ball specialist, and his trademark move is faking a shot, somewhat similar to the moment Ronaldinho famously produced against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2005. Not only is he tricky on the ball, the youngster is also two-footed, and opponents seemingly never know which way he will go.
That was easy to see when Haksabanovic scored a screamer on his return to Allsvenskan this year, gifting Halmstad a 1-0 win over Ostersund. Receiving the ball in the penalty area, he looked to be cutting inside onto his right foot, only to suddenly change direction and beat the goalkeeper with his left from a tight angle. Overall, the youngster flourished in the top division, scoring four goals for a weak outfit that is fighting to avoid relegation again. It became clear that he is ready for the next step.
Choosing the right move was important, and Haksabanovic was wise. "Sead told me that he doesn't want to sit on the bench at a big club, like Alexander Isak does at Borussia Dortmund after moving from AIK in the beginning of the year," Wagner says. "He intended to join a middle-sized team where he would have a fair chance to play frequently."
That is why Inter Milan were not considered an option when the Italians showed interest. Haksabanovic nearly joined Club Brugge in January, but changed his mind at the last moment to sign a new contract with Halmstad. The Swedish club couldn't have been happier. The Belgians were supposed to pay just €1.5 million for the youngster, but now West Ham have spent north of €3m to bring him to London, ensuring Halmstad's financial future for several years.
That is not the only significant choice the midfielder had to make this year. In May, he stunned Sweden by opting to represent Montenegro, the homeland of his father, Senad. The wunderkind played for the country of his birth at U17 and U19 levels, but constant pressure from the Montenegro FA president Dejan Savicevic, who even called Sead on his 18th birthday, proved to be decisive.
"We are grateful to Sweden, but I think that Montenegro's style would suit him much better. It is a stomach feeling," the father explained, and Haksabanovic made his full international debut in June. He proved to be strong mentally despite the public pressure, and father plays an important role in his life.
"Sead comes from a stable family and has always enjoyed support from his parents," Jonsson says.
Such an upbringing ensured that Haksabanovic is a serious professional. He made an effort to put on a lot of muscle during the last year. Working hard in training is also important to him. "When Sead played only 45 minutes in a preseason friendly, he thought that wasn't enough and started sprinting sessions after the final whistle," Wagner recalls.
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic made it clear he'll count on the young prodigy, and there is a chance he could emulate Ljungberg in London. The youngster is still a little inconsistent, but his magnificent talent, positive attitude and improved physical strength make one feel he is bound for success in the Premier League.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin