Like his playing style, Yussuf Poulsen's professional career has been based on hard graft. Even now as standout star at RB Leipzig, his qualities are often underrated – just as they were when he began his journey.
A down-to-earth and jovial giant, Poulsen made his debut for RB Leipzig without the weight of expectation all the way back in 2013. The Dane didn't get his name on the score sheet in a forgettable 1-0 win against Halle in the third tier, but it proved to be the start of a remarkable journey that took him from the lower leagues of German football to the top of the Bundesliga – and the Champions League.
For the past six years, Poulsen's progress as a player has mirrored the club's progression, yet few would have given him a chance of reaching such heights when he was taking the first steps on a path to the pinnacle.
"I was never the biggest talent," Poulsen said in a recent interview with the German Football League (DFL), which operates the Bundesliga. "I was never the guy of whom everyone said: 'He'll play professionally someday.'"
Fast, strong, lack of ball control
The 25-year-old proved them wrong though, signing his first professional contract with Lyngby BK of Denmark's second division in 2011. His former coach, Christian Nielsen, remembers their time together fondly.
"He was strong and could jump, he was very fast, but he needed to improve his ball control."
Former teammate, Uffe Bech, who plays for Greek side Panathinaikos, pulled fewer punches in talking of his longtime friend, saying that "when you watched [Poulsen] at youth level you thought: 'Wow, he's fast and strong.' But he couldn't do a thing with the ball.'"
Not as proficient with the ball at his feet, Poulsen's strengths lay elsewhere as another close friend and ex-teammate Christian Norgaard, pointed out.
"Physically he's a monster," said the Brentford midfielder. "He has a body like no other and can do things that very few players can do."
Beyond his obvious physical attributes, key to Poulsen's development has been an unerring desire to learn and improve. During his time in charge of the Danish U17 and U19 teams, Thomas Frank was taken aback by the mental fortitude the striker demonstrated at an early age.
"Technically and tactically he still had a lot to learn," Frank explained. "But his mentality and work ethic was simply incredible."
As a result Poulsen developed into a "reliable striker who scored goals" in Denmark's youth set-up before springing a surprise that caught many of guard by joining Leipzig in 2013 at the age of 19.
"Everyone in Denmark shook their heads," former teammate Uffe Bech recalled, "but Yussuf was sure that he had made the right decision. I know he spoke to Ralf Rangnick, who convinced him of the RB Leipzig project. And today, I think, he's pretty happy about how everything's gone."
Difficult start in Leipzig
Three years after his arrival, Leipzig had catapulted themselves into Germany's top tier and, for Poulsen, it was the result of hard work and overcoming testing times.
"It was a difficult start. I took part in two training sessions and then had games on the Saturday and Sunday. Two days in a row. I couldn't run for a whole week afterwards," Poulsen said with a laugh.
He's come a long way since and, with 227 outings to his name in all competitions, he is the player to have made the most appearances since Leipzig's inception in 2009.
"This is the club that got me to where I am now. It's the first club I've really been successful with," said Poulsen, who shared a flat with current Bayern and Germany star Joshua Kimmich during his early days in Leipzig. "He helped me a lot in the beginning. I wasn't that good in German."
However, here too, Poulsen has come a long way, as now he is comfortable giving interviews in his third language.
Lasting connection to home
Nevertheless, Poulsen remains cognisant of his roots. A member of the Danish national team to feature at the 2018 World Cup squad in Russia, back home he is also known as "Yurary," the name of his football crazy father who died of cancer when Poulsen was just six years old.
In Copenhagen Poulsen also runs a café with a couple of friends, and it doesn't seem to matter so much that he doesn't have time to look after the business on a day-to-day basis.
"The fans keep bringing him small gifts. You can definitely feel his presence, even if he's not here," said barista Victor Otorio.
Still Poulsen hasn't let success go to his head and in the eyes of good friend Bech is "the same cheerful person I've always known and he deserves all of the recognition he gets."
Yet even now, with his one of the first names on the teamsheet and Leipzig shaping up as title challengers in the Bundesliga under Julian Nagelsmann, Poulsen's talents remain underrated outside RB circles. Perhaps it's an accepted side effect of partnering German international Timo Werner up front or his unrestrained hustle-and-bustle style, but a lack of recognition has never held the Dane back before.
"I love challenges, and every time someone said to me, 'You can't do this,' All I wanted to do was to show them: 'I can do that.'"