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Stopping Erling Haaland | An in-depth look at the Norwegian starlets sensational start to 2022-23

The 22-year-old Norwegian phenom has already scored 14 goals in just 10 appearances across all competitions and many are already suggesting he could become one of the greatest goal-scorers in football history

There is a persistent debate among the global football community – unfortunately spearheaded by discussions on Twitter – that claims attacking players who join the Premier League from the Bundesliga will inevitably struggle whilst making the leap from the top flight of German football to Europe’s top-rated league.

Recent examples the likes of Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, and even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to an extent, have on the surface shown that to thrive in the corridors of the Westfalenstadion, Red Bull Arena, and Bay Arena is not the same kettle of fish as plying ones trade at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, or the Emirates.

But the counter-argument has always been that surveying previous achievement is not as important as players making sure their next port of call suits them to the very ground. In that light, Havertz, Werner, and Pulisic made poor decisions by joining a Chelsea outfit that did not suit their styles of play on a tactical level.

Much of the same can be said of Sancho to date though it remains to be seen how he will get on under new boss Erik ten Hag, while in the case of Aubameyang, his excellent start to life at Arsenal was sullied on the back of continued behavioural issues under headmaster Mikel Arteta as well as the tactical schematic in north London evolving overtime to require much more from a centre-forward apart from just goal poaching.

Erling Haaland, however, is proving different from all the rest at every turn.

In the same manner that Sancho, Havertz, Werner, and Pulisic were all highly-touted youngsters to shine in Germany, so too did Haaland during a brilliant stint at Borussia Dortmund after quickly rising to prominence at RB Salzburg.

From the outset, the Leeds-native and son of former Manchester City, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, and Norwegian international midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland was set to challenge Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski in what would become a league-defining goalscoring rivalry at the summit of the Bundesliga.

Across two-and-a-half seasons with Dortmund, Haaland would not disappoint in the slightest. Though Dortmund did not win the league with his goalscoring leadership, the club did bag a DFB-Pokal win in 2020-21 and by the end of his spell in Germany, Haaland continued his exploits in front of goal to the tune of 62 goals in 67 Bundesliga appearances which are extrapolated to 86 goals in 89 appearances in all competitions while averaging over a goal per game in European club competitions.

With his summer arrival at Manchester City in what could well do down as one of the bargains of the century when Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions added one of Europe’s premier goalscorers for just £58m, Haaland was set to put his already star-studded career to the test to see if he could come up against the best the top flight of English football had to offer. He has done so and then some.

To put a cap on his time in Germany and what City could realistically have expected from the 22-year-old Norwegian, who already has hit the 20-goal mark for his country in just 21 caps as of June when he bagged five goals against Serbia and a pair of braces in two fixtures against rivals Sweden during UEFA Nations League play, Haaland’s last season in Dortmund saw him post a 0.98 goals/90min rate on the back of an xG of 0.73 while averaging 3.11 shots, 5.4 touches in the penalty area, and 3.19 aerial duels won.

Simply put, if Haaland gets into the box, the 6′4 striker will inevitably score. Who better for City to build the next phase of its evolution around than him?

Firing on all cylinders for City

Style of play is everything when you analyse a player; not just in terms of what he or she brings to the table both in characteristics as well as what story the data tells, but even more importantly, the links between how a club operates on a tactical level and whether or not the player in question suits the system rather than the other way around.

Moreover, the overall comparison between the Premier League and the Bundesliga always has one key difference; more teams in the PL are willing to sit back deep, in defensive depth and layers, to shut down the opposition; particularly when bigger clubs are the antagonist of the day. In the Bundesliga, sitting deep is far less common, and as such, so often attacking players do thrive with more space to operate or get in between and behind the lines, which is one of the key factors that made Timo Werner such a threat for Leipzig while partly why he struggled for Chelsea.

But Haaland is another animal entirely. Equally, Haaland thrived with space and direct play at Dortmund while he has seemingly already risen to another level soon after his arrival at the Etihad Stadium this summer in a system under Guardiola that is possession-based, ball-dominant, and a hybrid capable of both dominating proceedings while also flipping a switch and turning into a direct system at the drop of a hat.

As such, Haaland’s multi-faceted player profile has seamlessly fit into the most creative club in England; one that thrives on penetrating into the opposition’s defensive third to craft chances inside the 18-yard-box.

For Haaland, a player that was far more involved in build-up play at Dortmund, the command and control collective at City through the creative outlets of Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gündogan, and João Cancelo, Haaland is not nearly as needed when it comes to phases of play during the build-up and can almost solely focus on getting free in the final third to put the finishing touches on City’s attacking moves.

By default, this makes him even more dangerous than he already proved himself to be at both Dortmund and Salzburg in seasons past, which is reflected in the fact that he has only attempted 20 passes just once this season in the Premier League in City’s 2-0 win against West Ham on matchday one; a match where Haaland bagged his first and second league goals and got off the mark immediately.

But the same can be said about his decreased need at taking players on or leading the charge when on the ball, having attempted more than one dribble in just two of his seven league appearances, but nevertheless, he remains lethal in the attacking third because of his understanding of time, space, and his maturity in reading the timing of his runs to near perfection (as seen below in his first of three goals in City’s 4-2 win against Crystal Palace).

With eleven goals already and averaging 1.61 goals per match – 0.52 ahead of what is an already frightening 1.09 xG – it seems that Haaland has become an unstoppable force in the final third on the back of averaging 3.81 shots/90min and hitting the target over 65% of the time.

The 22-year-old has already become such a vital cog in the wheel under Guardiola that the club is going through extensive lengths to ensure he returns from international duty with Norway as fit as possible.

When former Dortmund clubmate Jude Bellingham was asked how the German outfit could stop Haaland when he was to clash with his former employers in their recent Champions League group stage match, the England starlet responded as a player who has seen the very best of Haaland while acknowledging the gravity of the task at hand.

“I’m not really sure, to be honest. We’ll have to find out tomorrow. I think, you know, he’s a player with a lot of quality. A lot of physical attributes that make him so dangerous. Like I said, I think it’s not a thing that is an individual task…I think it’s something the team has to deal with collectively. I think, you know, if we stick together and we try to do the right things without the ball, it can be possible.”

Bellingham was on the mark with his comments on his former clubmate; stopping Haaland is not about an individual battle, but a collective one. In order to keep him off the scoresheet, stopping the supply lines to the Norwegian at source is the only way for him to not influence matters in front of goal.

Circling back to his headed effort against Palace, Haaland was seemingly dealt with accordingly. Both Marc Guéhi and Cheick Doucouré were on alert and double-marking Haaland as well as space around the penalty spot while Joachim Andersen was also in the vicinity. But with Nathaniel Clyne’s failure to close down Foden fast enough, the England winger played a lovely ball into space that tapped into Haaland’s ability to read play faster than most of his contemporaries and saw him react fasted ahead of three Palace defenders to free himself to glance his header past Vicente Guaita.

Most impressively, despite going on to bag a hat-trick against Patrick Vieira’s Palace, Haaland completed just five passes across his influential performance but nevertheless left his mark in a manner befitting a player of his freakish natural ability – both as a goalscorer and a physical nightmare to handle – to do what it takes to find the back of the net.

His wondergoal against his former employers perhaps best sums up just how difficult it is to shut Haaland down, even when it looks like you have done everything right.

In the build-up before Haaland’s match-winner against Dortmund, Edin Terzić’s men looked to have cut off Haaland from Portuguese wing-back João Cancelo smartly, with six players either marking Haaland directly or cutting off direct ground supply from Cancelo while also sitting deep enough to theoretically give Gregor Kobel enough command of his area to come out for any ball that could be clipped into the area. Haaland had other ideas.

Credit must be given to Cancelo for the peach of a ball he played into space for Haaland to acrobatically redirect past Kobel, and though the defensive line seemed to be in control, Dortmund made the same mistake that Palace committed; not closing down the creative source.

As usual, Haaland was first to react just before Cancelo played his ball into the area despite being isolated one-vs-three in the 18-yard-box, but despite that, it took a sublime physical effort on Haaland’s part to even get something on the cross, let alone find the back of the net.

Though neither Mats Hummels nor Nico Schlotterbeck was capable of dealing with the cross directly, most players in the world in Haaland’s position likely would be unable to as well. It was another example of his next-level ability to make something out of nothing…to try the daring akin to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi.

So, how do you stop Erling Haaland? Maybe you can’t. While from an analysis standpoint it remains postulated that to collectively defend well against City and not allow them time and space to be creative in an attempt for Haaland to do what he does best, this season has made it clear now, more than ever, that even when you think you have him shackled, you really don’t.

And at the time of writing, his eleven goals in seven Premier League appearances have him on pace to shatter the single-season goal record in England’s top flight set by Mohamed Salah in 2017-18 when he scored 32 goals for Liverpool in what would see him finish the season with 61 goals should this pace continue.

Though no one ever expects him to hit that figure, it is hardly out of the realm of possibility to see the Norwegian star flirt with a 40-goal campaign while breaking records along the way.

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Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

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