(A version of this piece was originally published by The Athletic in March 2020. It has been comprehensively updated to reflect Erling Haaland’s career since then, including his upcoming move to Manchester City)
The battle to sign Erling Haaland is over. The 6ft 4in Norwegian battering ram is on his way to Manchester City.
City have agreed to meet the release clause in Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund contract and the striker is set to join the club on July 1.
Here we tell the story of his journey so far, from Molde to Manchester — via Salzburg and Dortmund — and what the data can tell us about how Haaland compares to Europe’s elite strikers…
The birth of a baby-faced assassin
“He did everything without worrying about negative consequences. That was never in his mind.”
Oystein Neerland’s office at Molde is close enough to the Norwegian club’s training pitches for the players to walk by after they finish their sessions. When you ask him about Erling Haaland, he has recollections of a day when the striker unexpectedly knocked on his door and asked to come in.
“You know players,” Neerland told The Athletic. “They maybe say hello or give you a little wave, no more than that, but Erling wanted to speak to me. My reaction was, ‘What’s the matter? Is this about money? Does he want a new contract?’. I thought it would be something like that. Instead, he started asking how I was and how my day was going. He wanted to know what it was like being the CEO of a football club. It was nothing to do with money. It was curiosity, an interest in people.”
Haaland’s old colleagues admire that about him: the ability to be simultaneously normal and abnormal. To sprint like an Olympian, score goals like a Ballon d’Or winner but stay in touch with the boy they knew. Neerland, Molde’s chief executive, sat and watched Haaland score twice against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League a couple of years ago and chuckled as the teams lined up for the anthem. “A full stadium and a big game,” Neerland said. “He’s there, he’s smiling and he’s not afraid. Football’s nothing less than enjoyment for him. I don’t think that will ever change.”
The childlike grin and the self-assurance were confined to Norway until Haaland burst out of the bubble and into Red Bull Salzburg in 2019 but this is not football’s equivalent of the Cinderella Man, however breakneck his trajectory has been. Nobody tipped him to be Europe’s hottest talent at 19, a forward who Borussia Dortmund were already shielding from transfer speculation just two months after his arrival in Germany, but Haaland was an easy horse to back.
“It’s happened quicker than I would have predicted when he was 11 or 12,” Alf Ingve Berntsen, a coach at his first club, Bryne FK, said in 2020. “But back then, we believed he would be very good. Erling always scored goals and every time you put him up against better competitors, he just scored goals again. It was the same pattern, always, from day one.”
Bryne, on the south-western coast of Norway, is an appropriate town for Haaland to have grown up in, with a population of around 12,000 and no delusions of grandeur. He is Yorkshire-born, arriving in July 2000 a month and a half after his father Alf-Inge joined Manchester City from Leeds United in a £2.5 million transfer. Alfie, as he was known, retired in 2003 at age 30 after a serious knee injury and the family moved home to Norway when Erling was a toddler. Bryne was his hometown and Bryne was where his son made the large circle of friends he keeps in touch with today. Over the years, they have gone their separate ways — some to other Norwegian clubs, some abroad, but they grew up as footballers in a large squad of kids managed by Berntsen.
Berntsen recognised a trait in Haaland which so many professional athletes have: the ability to excel in whichever sport they try.
Haaland was good at handball and athletics (a couple of years ago a journalist dug up records showing that he still held the world record for a standing long jump by a five-year-old, set in January 2006 at 163cm — 5ft 4in) and his skinny frame would be a temporary drawback. Haaland’s elder brother, Astor, had filled out nicely and his coaches were confident that Erling would follow suit, with a body that allows him to cover 60m in under six and a half seconds.
“That group of boys in Bryne stuck together for 10 years, about 40 of them in total,” Berntsen said. “Erling would have been five and a half when I first remember him, a very normal boy and a boy who was easy to like. We knew his father, of course. Everyone in Norway did. But Alfie was very hands-off with the coaching. There was no pressure, not even once in all our years, to do certain things or to work Erling in a certain way. A lot of youngsters in Norway are coached by volunteer parents. They aren’t paid to do it. It was fun. We didn’t want it to be anything else and neither did the kids.”
Haaland and his team-mates were helped by the construction of an artificial indoor pitch in Bryne, which countered the worst of Norway’s weather and made it easy for them to play when they felt like it. At certain points each week, it was free to use. Coaching was structured but when the players went for a kickabout on the astroturf, Berntsen saw the spirit and verve of “a kind of street football”. “It was good for them and good for Erling,” he said. “Not every movement in football should be dictated by adults. Sometimes, it’s better for the boys to do what they want. It was their spare time, after all.”
Haaland’s intelligence was as compelling as his finishing. Everyone sees the goalscorer in him but what stood out as he matured was his wit in confusing defences with his movement and positioning. For Bryne, he would play against big, combative centre-backs and smaller, quicker defenders. No matter the strengths of the opposition, he always scored goals. The same happened when he played for his regional side.
“His smartness in the box was the thing about him,” Berntsen said. “He tried to be strong and he was very fast — you see how fast he is now, so quick it’s almost unbelievable — but best of all, he used his brain.” When Neerland started watching Haaland, he was equally struck by the forward’s attitude. “There was confidence and bravery every time the ball came to him,” he said. “He did everything without worrying about negative consequences. That was never in his mind.”
Word about Haaland started to spread. He was the son of a famous Norwegian footballer but the hype was neither manufactured nor the product of nepotism. Scouts reporting back to their clubs said he was that good. Alfie and the family were deeply supportive of him but not pushy or overbearing. Both Neerland and Berntsen agree that when it came to Haaland leaving for Molde in early 2017 and then moving from Molde to Salzburg in January 2019, the teenager did most of the decision-making. “Erling thinks a lot for himself,” Berntsen said. “That was my impression of him. And if you look now and at how he’s developed, it seems as if every transfer was well thought-through.”
Molde, 400 miles north up the coast, first sent staff to analyse Haaland around two years before they signed him at age 16. Every club in Norway was interested but they had more appeal and more money than most, and Haaland joined for a fee of less than £100,000. Molde made a tidy profit when they sold him to Salzburg for £7 million and again in January 2020 when Haaland’s arrival in Dortmund earned them a further sell-on fee. “We knew that signing him would be a good deal,” Neerland said, “but in the end, it was even better than we thought.”
Haaland made his debut for Bryne, a second-tier side, in May 2016 against Ranheim. He was blooded by Gaute Larsen but Larsen lost his job almost immediately and Berntsen, after numerous years as a youth-team coach, took charge. Berntsen suspected Haaland was not quite physically ready for league football but felt the teenager’s nous would carry him through. Haaland went goalless in his 16 appearances (albeit 12 of those came as a substitute) but Bryne realised that accepting Molde’s offer was in everyone’s interests.
“Even though he didn’t score, he was in a very important transitional phase,” Berntsen said. “If he’d stayed at Bryne that winter, I’m sure he would have been too good for the Bryne team the next season. It was a good move for him and he left at the right time.” Neerland and Molde’s then-manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, were happy to let Haaland bloom in his own time. “It was obvious that his body wasn’t fully developed,” Neerland said, “but he grew quickly in a short time.” Molde put Haaland through gym programmes and conditioning work to bring him up to the level needed in Norway’s top division.
At various junctures, there were opportunities for other clubs to get their claws into the young prospect
Germany’s Hoffenheim took him on trial from Bryne but failed to agree personal terms. Former Everton director of football Steve Walsh told The Athletic he’d set up a deal to sign Haaland from Molde for £3 million, only for the Goodison Park top brass to say no. In 2018, Leeds made overtures to Haaland as his form left Molde resigned to the fact that they could keep the striker in Norway no longer. “There weren’t as many offers as you heard about in the media,” Neerland said. “Nothing is black and white but there was big interest in him and all the interest in him was from big clubs.”
Leeds established close contact with Haaland and were willing to make Molde what they felt was a competitive bid to bring him “home”. Haaland, then just turning 18, would have sat behind Leeds’ highest earners on the wage bill at the time, such as Pontus Jansson and Samuel Saiz, but the club were prepared to pay a salary higher than that of many of their first team squad. Their proposal came with the usual promise of regular games and a pathway to bigger things.
Haaland had good reason to be keen and for a while, he was. He has a soft spot for the city he was born in and was quoted in a Norwegian interview several years ago as saying that his “dream is to win the Premier League with Leeds”. The club were optimistic about nailing down an agreement and, with the help of Yorkshire-based agent Hayden Evans, he was flown to England to look around Elland Road stadium and the club’s training ground at Thorp Arch.
Everything looked hopeful until Salzburg tabled a contract dwarfing the terms Leeds were offering. In an instant, there was no contest. As Haaland accepted Salzburg’s advances, Leeds tried to tell themselves he was taking the money but they accept now that his decision to move to Austria was astute. “You couldn’t accuse him of making a mistake,” said one senior Leeds source.
Not everything in football went Haaland’s way.
He was called up by Norway for the European Under-17 Championship in 2017 but played in all three games without scoring and was part of a team soundly beaten by an England side featuring Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi. He was so ineffectual in that tournament that certain members of the England set-up remember next to nothing about him, apart from his shaved head. He was still early in his first year with Molde, though, and as Neerland pointed out, season two was when Haaland started writing headlines. And internationally, those Euros were the calm before the storm of him scoring nine times in an Under-20 World Cup tie against Honduras in May 2019.
Neerland can pick out the moment when he realised Molde were sitting on an outrageous talent and one they would be forced to cash in on before long.
Molde went to Brann Bergen in July 2018 for a first-vs-fourth game between two title contenders. Haaland scored four times in the first 21 minutes to set up a 4-0 win, then got two more goals and an assist in a 5-1 home battering of Valerenga the following weekend.
“I remember it clearly,” Neerland said. “Those two matches but especially the one against Brann. I realised that it’s all about time now. Clubs would be coming for him.”
They came, they saw and they asked Haaland to conquer. Europe was his for the taking.
The best of both Bundesligas
“At Salzburg, one player jokingly referred to Haaland as ‘a cow’ because of his huge frame and less than assured touch”
There is a certain music to the way Haaland’s name is announced on the loudspeaker at Borussia Dortmund. With most players, the announcer simply shouts the first name and the crowd bellows back the surname. With Haaland, both sides sing their part to the ding-dong tune of a doorbell: “Errrr-ling!” “Haaaa-land!”
It is a fitting serenade for a player who has brought so much joy to Dortmund of late. In the two short years since he joined from RB Salzburg, the Norwegian prodigy has scored 85 goals, led his side to a rare piece of silverware, and brought a new ruthlessness to a famously soft-centred team.
Initially, there were concerns it would take time for him to adapt from playing in Austria’s Bundesliga, to the quicker, more physical equivalent across the border.
In Salzburg, Haaland told staff members he wanted to become the best player in the world and did anything possible to improve. The teenager’s devotion to his profession went as far as using blue light filter glasses when using his mobile phone in the evenings. He said they helped him fall asleep more quickly.
Yet it still took him time to adapt after joining from Molde. One Salzburg player jokingly referred to him as “a cow” because of his huge frame and less than assured touch, and in his first half-season under coach Marco Rose, the young Norwegian only played for 151 minutes, starting just once.
“He was very focused from the word go, but he needed a few weeks to adapt. The first six months weren’t easy for him,” Rose told Kicker magazine in 2019.
There were no such teething problems in Germany, where the goals have flowed like water since his arrival. By the time he was reunited with Rose at Dortmund last summer, Haaland had been crowned Bundesliga player of the season in 2021, and scored 57 goals in 59 games. In this season, he has added another 28.
Shades of the “cow” remain, and some of his best moments in Dortmund have seemed to defy the logic of his lumbering, 6ft 4in frame: the cool finish from the narrowest of angles on his home debut against Cologne; the meme-worthy box-to-box sprint against PSG; the looping half-volley against Union Berlin last September.
At his best, Haaland moves with the glitchy perfection of a video game avatar. The strength, the pace and the finishing are Cristiano Ronaldo, the awkwardness and unpredictability are Thomas Muller.
He has also changed Dortmund’s game. Haaland has shown a relentless obsession with scoring that had been missing from Dortmund’s very cultured forward line. As someone who makes angled runs behind the centre-back rather than expecting the ball to his feet, Haaland has provided an outlet for through balls.
Most importantly, he has hardened the soft centre. Dortmund may always have been planned as a brief chapter in his career, but Haaland still appears to care deeply whether his team win or lose. In recent weeks, as he has watched helplessly from the sidelines with a muscle problem, his excitement in the stands has appeared genuine.
“Nobody can fail to see his quality, but it’s that will to win which really makes him stand out,” said then Dortmund coach Edin Terzic after a draw with Cologne in March last year. Haaland had snatched a last-minute equaliser with his second goal in that game but was still fuming after full-time. “You could see his disappointment because he always wants to leave the pitch with three points,” said Terzic.
That attitude has increasingly held up a Dortmund side which is otherwise chronically lacking in leadership. Last spring, it helped them to only their second major piece of silverware in a decade, as Haaland scored two to see off RB Leipzig in the German Cup final.
At times, Dortmund have drifted into over-reliance. If Haaland’s goals have papered the cracks of defensive frailty and volatile form, his own dips have been all the more noticeable for it. The machine-like ease with which he scores can sometimes inflate expectations.
“We obviously always think that Erling is going to score when he wants in every single game. But he is a human, and a young player,” said Terzic after his striker went on a run of seven games without a goal in spring 2021.
That remains Haaland’s longest spell without a goal since joining Dortmund, but there have also been other barren patches, most of them driven by his enduring problems with injury.
In this season particularly, Haaland’s body has been an endless source of frustration. He has had two extended spells on the sidelines, both of them marked by constant speculation about his return.
Equally persistent has been discussion of his future which, amid growing speculation and a lack of clarity in recent months, has become a sore point at times. In January, tensions flared when Haaland told Norwegian broadcaster Viaplay that the club were putting pressure on him to make a decision.
That may have rubbed some fans up the wrong way, but for the most part, few at Dortmund will begrudge the Norwegian his departure. With 85 goals in two years, they know that they have got more than their money’s worth.
Kit Holden and Raphael Honigstein
The ultimate penalty-box striker with a phenomenal scoring rate
Haaland’s rate of scoring is currently sharper than the early careers of Benzema, Lewandowski, Messi and Ronaldo
However you want to slice or dice the data, the conclusion is the same — Erling Haaland’s goalscoring is elite.
Since the start of last season, only PSG’s Kylian Mbappe (42) and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (62) have scored more than Haaland’s 41 non-penalty goals across Europe’s top five European leagues — with the pair having played significantly more minutes than Haaland in that time.
If not for his injury woes that have kept him out for a total of 16 games for Borussia Dortmund this season, there is little doubt that tally would be higher for Haaland. A look at his non-penalty goals (0.87 per 90 minutes) compared with his expected goals (0.71 per 90 minutes) across that period shows that Haaland is not only one of the best in the chances he has to score, but also converts those chances above expectation. A rate of nearly one goal scored per game since 2020-21 in the Bundesliga is only bettered by Lewandowski.
Filtering for those closer to his age group underlines Haaland’s frightening ability. Despite his imposing, mature physique, it remains a worthwhile exercise to remind ourselves that Haaland is still 21 years old and would, in theory, be described as a centre forward “still learning his trade” as a top-class striker.
However, while others his age might still have a lot of learning to do, Haaland’s goalscoring record is top of the class among under-23 forwards across Europe.
As a metric, xG will continue to be an accurate predictor of goal probability in the long-term, but Haaland has little regard for the maths — scoring above expectation in each of his two and a half seasons in a Dortmund shirt. Using data from StatsBomb via FBref, the Norwegian has scored 12.6 non-penalty goals more than the quality of chances he has found himself in since January 2020.
Knowing his qualities as we do, this overperformance is less likely to be down to luck, and more likely to be down to his clinical finishing developed from hard work on the training ground. It is not always the case for a young striker, but a simple look at his shot locations across his time at Dortmund show that Haaland almost exclusively reserves his shots for when he is in the penalty area — and increasingly between the width of the goalposts.
Quantity and quality is what Haaland is about. Since the start of last season, his non-penalty xG per shot — which measures the average chance quality of a given shot — of 0.22 suggests the opportunities he gets should lead to a goal every five shots. For context, no player has a higher average shot quality across Europe’s top five leagues with 50 shots or more.
Quality is a word that is key to Haaland’s rise to the top, and the goalscoring numbers currently stack up favourably when comparing him with some of the elite forwards of the past decade.
Looking at the domestic league goals scored at each age, Haaland’s rate of scoring is currently sharper than the early careers of Karim Benzema, Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Granted, there are some obvious caveats to that statement, but Haaland and Kylian Mbappe’s trajectory of goalscoring makes it blindingly obvious why the pair have been the most coveted players on the planet in the past 18 months.
With Pep Guardiola spoilt for choice with creative, attacking midfielders who can thread passes that many other players can’t, the message for Haaland will surely be straightforward — the pass will arrive, you just put the ball in the back of the net.
(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Tom Slator)