With 87 minutes on the clock and trailing by three goals, Sampdoria had little more than professional pride at stake during July’s meeting with AC Milan. However, Claudio Ranieri’s teams are not known for surrendering meekly. As Mehdi Leris harassed and subsequently dispossessed, Ismael Bennacer 35 yards from the Milan goal, something special was about to unfold.
The loose ball fell to the feet of Kristoffer Askildsen. The young Norwegian midfielder turned, shifted it from under his feet, and looked up to see an ocean of space in front of him. With the instep of his right foot, he arced a sublime shot beyond the outstretched arm of Gianluigi Donnarumma and into the top of the net. Had the Gradinata Sud been present they would have been in raptures. Askildsen had just made history in becoming the first player born after the millennium to score for the blucerchiati.
But who is Kristoffer Askildsen?
At 19-years old, Askildsen was making just his fourth Serie A appearance that evening, following his January arrival in Liguria. The career of the Oslo-born player began to gather serious momentum during the 2019 campaign with Stabaek in Norway’s Eliteserien. Despite losing the middle part of the season to injury, his performances led to a national under-21 call-up and brought him to the attention of Sampdoria, who paid a fee of around €2.5 million to sign the player on a four-and-a-half-year contract.
In truth, Sampdoria could have opted for any one of a trio of talented midfielders emerging at Stabaek, comprising of Askildsen, Hugo Vetlesen and Emil Bohinen (son of former Forest, Blackburn and Derby wide man, Lars). “The fact they went for Askildsen over some of the other talents at the club was somewhat surprising”, notes Norwegian football analyst Ben Wells . “This is not to the detriment of Askildsen’s talent, but he had been injured for much of the year prior to his move and hadn’t shown what he was all about just yet.”
Nevertheless, the transfer represented a handsome reward for both the player and the club. Askildsen first joined Stabaek as 13-year old striker, but converted to a deeper role under the tutelage of former Tottenham and Liverpool player Oyvind Leonhardsen. It was yet another success story for a club with a burgeoning reputation for youth development, whose previous successes include Morten Thorsby (also now of Sampdoria) and Genk’s Mats Möller Daehli.
What sort of player is he?
Askildsen is an energetic box-to-box midfield player, robust in the tackle and confident on the ball. Sampdoria have so far deployed him in a deep central midfield role as an alternative to Andrea Bertolacci or Karol Linetty. “I’m a physical midfielder…I like to defend and attack. I’m a good passer of the ball and have a good footballing brain”, Askildsen says of himself. At 6’3’’, he is already an imposing figure and will surely develop greater physicality as his lean frame fills out.
Despite his exploits last month, Askildsen is not known as a prolific goal-scorer. However, this is an aspect of his game he is determined to refine: “It was incredibly fun to see the goal go in against Milan. I saw that there were no opponents in front of me. I have been told by my father that I must dare to shoot a little. It was 3-0, so I thought it could not go so much worse. Then it was just a matter of trying!”.
Askildsen on his move…
The transfer was something of a whirlwind for Askildsen; Sampdoria sealed the deal within a matter of days of formally expressing their interest. Naturally, the player was thrilled to be moving to a top European league, but he was not expecting to see first-team action quite so soon. Back in January, he indicated: “[Sampdoria] want to develop me into a complete player. By the summer, I will be ready to compete for a place on the team, so I will have some time to adapt. I do not feel pressure.”
The player himself was not the only one surprised to find opportunity come knocking so soon: “Many Stabaek fans believed him to be one of the brightest talents from their academy, though he didn’t get a chance to show it for their first-team before moving abroad”, reflected Ben Wells. “The fact that he has already made his debut for Sampdoria would be considered as a surprise as many thought it would take a year or so before he would even make the first team squad.”
Askildsen’s rapid progression to the first team is in part a testament to the player’s impact since arriving; as early as February he had been entrusted with a place on the substitute’s bench. But he has undoubtedly also benefitted from the relentless fixture schedule since the restart of football, which has required Sampdoria to use the full extent of their squad to mitigate the effects of fatigue.Embed from Getty Images
On his experiences so far…
Askildsen has had to contend with an unconventional start to life in Italy. Any dreams of la dolce vita were quickly extinguished by the onset of the global pandemic. It must have been a particularly challenging period; away from home for the very first time, alone in a new city, effectively confined to his apartment. However, he used that time to good effect; “It has been very boring to sit inside these months, but I really feel that I have worked well this period. I can call it a kind of mini pre-season, which I would say I have come out stronger from”.
The youngster managed to return to Norway for a couple of weeks during the pandemic, where he spent some time quarantined at home with his family. “It was nice to come home a little, to my mother’s cooking,” Askildsen commented, revealing a quiet side to his personality.
On his coach…
Askildsen is working under the guidance of one of the most experienced and respected coaches around. He made his debut when Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria were still battling to pull clear of the relegation places; the fact this happened against Inter at the San Siro in a finely balanced game speaks volumes of the faith placed in him by Ranieri. Askildsen went on to make further appearances from the bench against SPAL, Milan and Brescia (though was unfortunate to receive two yellow cards in his final appearance).
The coach’s esteem for the player is evidently reciprocated. Ranieri’s fine reputation was one of the key factors that convinced Askildsen to join Sampdoria. And it transpires meeting your heroes isn’t always a bad thing: “He is very nice, very nice to me. It’s a plus that he speaks good English, it makes it a little easier. I like him very much. He has his way of playing football and has succeeded with it. He is a clear leader” Askildsen enthused.
On his teammates…
Askildsen’s arrival in Italy has been eased by the presence in Genoa of his compatriot Morten Thorsby, who joined Sampdoria last summer. Despite a five year age gap, the players have experienced remarkably similar career journeys to date; both began at the Heming youth club and ending up at Sampdoria, via Stabaek.
“Morten knows how it is here. It’s nice to have someone I can rely on”, says Askildsen. “I have eaten quite a few dinners and been with him since I joined. It’s very good to have him here. I can ask him about anything”. But Askildsen also recognises the importance of integrating with other team-mates, something that will become easier now lockdown restrictions have been relaxed.Embed from Getty Images
What does the future hold?
Progress has been meteoric for the youngster; just 18 months ago, his ambition was to force his way into the Stabaek team. Then, his move to Italy came off the back of just 15 top-flight appearances in his homeland. Seemingly having now made the breakthrough in Serie A, Askildsen will take some time over the summer to reassess his objectives for the coming season.
For Sampdoria, they will be looking to improve upon a disappointing season that was only partially salvaged by the tactical nous of Ranieri. They will no doubt ring the changes during the summer transfer window and Askildsen’s immediate prospects will hinge on this. With Edgar Baretto already departed, Andrea Bertolacci out of contract and Karol Linetty stalling on a new contract he will be looking to capitalise on the opportunity.
Askildsen will likely be harbouring hopes of further international recognition, though may have to bide his time for a senior call-up according to Wells: “Morten Thorsby, who is a regular at Sampdoria, cannot regularly get call ups to the Norwegian National Team at the moment. This is simply because the central midfield position for Norway is incredibly strong at the moment”. Askildsen will need to dislodge established figures such as Markus Henriksen (formerly of Hull City), Sander Berge (Sheffield United) and Ole Selnaes, and see off the challenge of other aspiring internationals, including his former teammates Bohinen and Vetlesen. Wells notes, however, “the fact that he is progressing well at Sampdoria now means that he is being considered in the same bracket as these other players.”
Despite his achievements to date, Askildsen also finds himself in the unusual position of not being the youngest Norwegian to play in Serie A. On the final day of the season, Udinese handed a debut to 18-year-old Bergen-born defensive midfielder Martin Palumbo. He is another player predicted to have a big future in the game, though having appeared for both Norway and Italy at under-18 level, it’s not clear where his long term international allegiance will lie.
The future certainly looks bright for Askildsen, and for Norwegian football too.