LEIPZIG, Germany — A trivial question for you: which current international has played under Rafa Benitez, Kenny Dalglish, Roy Hodgson, Roger Schmidt, Adi Hütter, Ralf Rangnick, Jesse Marsch, Julian Nagelsmann and Ralph Hasenhüttl?
Another clue? He played in a semi-final of the Champions League and the European Championships. He is also 31 years old and captain of his club.
Meet Peter Gulacsi, the Hungarian number 1 and RB Leipzig. If he decides to coach after his career, he’s no doubt ready for mentors, but he’s only partly a product of those coaches. Instead, when asked what is the best advice he has ever received, he turns to his former goalkeeping coach from his time at Liverpool.
Gulacsi was on their books from 2008 to 2013 and never played a first-team game, but those were formative years for the RB Leipzig stalwart. He recalls a conversation he had with then goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero (now at Napoli). “I wanted to train a lot and I wanted to be on the pitch every day and he said, ‘Sometimes less is more, but do it with quality,'” Gulacsi told ESPN. “And it’s stuck with me.”
After spending time in the wind and rain in the lower leagues of English football, he is now a proper Champions League standard stopper. Gulacsi’s story has been one of endurance and confidence in his own abilities, but most importantly: it’s all about timing.
The training had been brought forward by 30 minutes. Gulacsi didn’t want to be late, so while we were talking at the team’s state-of-the-art training base just outside Leipzig city center, it was a whirlwind tour of a career spanning over 15 years.
His career began at MTK Budapest before moving to Liverpool in 2007, where Gulacsi spent his six years living a nomadic existence. He would spend pre-season learning from Pepe Reina, playing for the reserves, then being loaned out to Hereford United, Tranmere Rovers and Hull City. “Those weren’t easy times – there wasn’t a moment when it was clear that I could reach the level needed to reach the top,” Gulacsi said. “But I had this dream in my mind and I’m really happy that my career turned out this way.”
He had to choose his moments carefully to get here. Gulacsi believes he managed to reach and maintain his position at the top thanks to “a bit of luck” and making “good decisions throughout my career in terms of changing clubs at the right times”. He also says he was “relatively patient” as he stayed at Liverpool until he was 23 and had the benefit of working with “great players and great coaches”.
When Gulacsi was signed by Liverpool, it was originally on a one-year loan, but the English club decided to make it a permanent deal. He was one of three players to leave MTK Budapest around this time, alongside striker Krisztian Nemeth and striker András Simon, and he was by far the most successful of the trio. Nemeth’s career has taken him to the Eredivisie and MLS, although he is now a free agent after a short spell with Hungarian Debrecen. Simon is from Hungarian First Division side Gyirmot.
“I didn’t want to rush and when I felt good it was time to follow my own path to be No. 1 somewhere – maybe not at the top level but to be an important part of a team. , to know you?” said Gulacsi. “It was there when I went to Salzburg.”
He signed for RB Salzburg as a free agent in 2013, and after impressing there under Hasenhüttl and Hütter, Rangnick approached him for Leipzig in 2015, paying £2.7m for his services. Gulacsi started behind Swiss goalkeeper Fabio Coltorti, but quickly took the lead and, the following season, Gulacsi was first choice for Leipzig and Hungary, a position he has since maintained.
When he signed for Leipzig they were in the 2nd Bundesliga, but a core of those players saw the club promoted to the top flight in 2016, where Leipzig became a Champions League staple. Gulacsi is considered a club legend in the same way as attackers Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen, or defenders Willi Orban and Lukas Klostermann.
Amid the changing landscape of football and within his own club, Gulacsi has remained true to his self-proclaimed values of self-improvement and belief in his own abilities. He’s an old-school goalkeeper in the mold of Petr Cech or Edwin van der Sar, but he’s worked on his ball-playing skills by adapting to the ever-changing nature of what it means. to be a goalkeeper in the modern game.
“You have to be really good with the ball on your feet,” says Gulacsi. “That’s one thing of course – playing behind the high defensive line is also important.
“I always say the main thing for goalkeepers is always to save the ball, of course, and that’s the most important thing – there’s a lot of little things before that with decision-making with positioning. The big thing for the future is decision making because you don’t have a lot of time and you need to be in the right position to be able to make that save – we see that with the best goalkeepers, their decision making and their positioning is really perfect.
“Nowadays if you want to be a top goalkeeper you can’t be good at just one thing. You have to be 9 out of 10 at everything – that’s the challenge as the game becomes more and more fast and getting faster and faster, and like a goalkeeper you always have to adapt.”
The season has been hectic in Leipzig. After seeing Nagelsmann leave for Bayern Munich last summer, the team suffered further upheaval when Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and central midfielder Marcel Sabitzer also left. The club have invested in youth to replace outgoing figures, giving Gulacsi a new centre-back partnership ahead of him this season with Josep Gvardiol and club legend Willi Orban often the chosen pair.
“This year was the first time we had a bit bigger change in our defensive line,” Gulacsi said. “I think the new guys adapted quickly to the Bundesliga, to our style of play, and as a goalkeeper I tried to support them, I tried to help them in every way. I think we have excellent communication at the back.”
The season started under current Leeds manager Jesse Marsch, but he left after six months in charge of a club caught between two philosophies: the team were used to Nagelsmann’s possession-based style, while Marsch wanted to return to Red Bull’s philosophy of pressing and high-tempo football. The club won seven games out of 20 under Marsch and on December 5, 2021 he left. The club then sat in 11th place and Domenico Tedesco was drafted in to get the team back on track. After eight wins in 13 league games, they are now fourth.
“For me, football is always a complex thing, you know,” says Gulacsi. “At the end of the day, if a team doesn’t do well, you will always be judged by the results. We had some good games, but we just couldn’t be consistent enough.
“Jesse is a fantastic manager. I think he will do very well at Leeds and I wish him nothing but the best. Yes, we have taken another path now, we have found our path, and football too – you have to “accept that and live with it. I think we’ve stabilized since the winter break, how many goals we’ve conceded, how stable we’ve been playing. I think we’ve gotten step by step to where we wanted and of course we want to keep improving.”
Gulacsi’s leadership has been tested by the turmoil, but he has seen great players and coaches come and go at Leipzig. He cites Timo Werner and Naby Keita as some of the best he’s played with, while he says Dayot Upamecano will be ‘one of the best centre-backs in the world’, but he’s also not shy about talking about the stars current team midfielder, Christopher Nkunku. and Dani Olmo.
With Leipzig too far behind league leaders Bayern Munich to challenge them this season, they are focused on a successful cup run in the DFB Pokal, with Union Berlin next in the semi-finals, and on the getting a top four in the league. This Bundesliga journey continues on April 2 when they face Borussia Dortmund (stream LIVE, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
“In football I always say you’ll get your chance, but you don’t get many,” Gulacsi says. “You have to be ready, you have to perform. And I’ve always been ready for this kind of opportunity.”