Borussia Dortmund, 2020–
Erling Braut Haaland’s rise from the ‘Manchild’ who made his senior debut at just 15 years old to world-beater at Borussia Dortmund has been remarkable. Via goal-filled stints under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde and Jesse Marsch at Red Bull Salzburg, Haaland, the 6ft 4ins striker who idolised Zlatan Ibrahimovic growing up, became one of the best strikers in world football while still in his teenage years. Aged just 20 in March 2020, Haaland broke the record for the fewest games needed to score 20 Champions League goals, reaching that milestone in just 14 appearances. With the vast majority of his career ahead of him, the ridiculously talented youngster is sure to achieve significantly more.
“It was just a matter of time before he scored more goals than me in the Champions League,” said Solskjaer who, with 19 goals, had previously been the competition’s top-scoring Norwegian. “At the age of 20, to achieve the amount of goals he has is fantastic. There’s not many more superlatives anyone can use.”
Haaland has all of the attributes required of the complete striker. He uses his sizeable frame to hold play up effectively and involve others; he has the pace and clever movement to run in behind; he can dribble and create; he can finish with either foot and with his head. For all of the many impressive aspects to his game, he is primarily a goalscorer – and he scores goals at a simply astonishing rate.
His clever movement and lethal finishing make a deadly combination. He happily comes deep to collect the ball and contribute to his team’s build-up play, often looking to spread the ball wide for a teammate, before turning and sprinting towards goal (below). He sometimes comes so deep that defenders will not follow him the whole way; in that situation, he is able to find space to turn with the ball and create from a forward-facing position.
The pace at which he moves off the ball causes opponents real problems. Where some strikers might labour in making a second run if they have been ignored first time around, or may be slow to catch up with play once they have come deep to link play, Haaland shows real desire to make another run and be involved at every opportunity. He uses his huge stride to sprint past opponents, and he is so fast that he often overtakes those who have had a significant head-start on him. He is constantly on the move, and as a result he consistently tests his opponents’ concentration and stamina – importantly, he is more than capable of taking advantage of any slip-up they may make.
His movement in the final third is a little more subtle. He consistently adjusts his position as the ball moves around midfield, and he will just as often move away from play as he runs towards it, with the aim of moving out of both central defenders' line of sight.
He makes small adjustments to his movement as he approaches goal, to unsettle and mislead his opponent. When he spots an opportunity for a teammate to attempt to find him in space near goal, he will change the line on which he is running and accelerate into that space, giving the defender little to no chance to react (below). Those double movements, often combined with a feint away from the ball, make him extremely difficult for defenders to read in those all-important moments close to goal – a huge part of the reason he scores so frequently.
He uses his body well when playing with his back to goal, protecting the ball effectively as he tries to bring it under control and if a teammate wants or needs to play a direct ball forward. Given he can use his strength to secure possession when under pressure, he can also be extremely effective in providing his team’s defenders with some respite following a clearance.
Haaland can finish well from just about anywhere. The speed with which he shoots offers defenders little time to press and block, and he can generate jaw-dropping power on his shots with little backlift. He rarely overplays when he is inside the area, too. The combination of his conviction in front of goal, his technique, and his sky-high confidence makes him a truly exceptional striker at a very young age.
Role at Borussia Dortmund
At Salzburg, under Marsch, Haaland most regularly featured in a 4-4-2. At Dortmund – under Lucien Favre and then Edin Terzic – he has almost always operated as a lone centre-forward, be that in a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. His main responsibility is finishing off moves, but he does plenty more. He is the target for vertical, line-breaking passes from defensive midfield, after which he sets the ball effectively to attacking midfielders who so often adopt narrow positions and stay close to him in order to combine (above).
After having set the ball to a forward-facing teammate, that teammate then tries to find a wider attacking midfielder or one of the full-backs or wing-backs who provide much of their width. Haaland will already have turned and sprinted towards the six-yard box to reach the end of any balls into the middle. A huge volume of his shots come from very close range, often because of the up-back-through pattern followed by a short, sharp burst towards goal at a speed with which many defenders cannot cope.
Dortmund have a lot of success finding their attacking midfielders – Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, Gio Reyna or Thorgan Hazard – in the half-spaces, and Haaland has plenty of success attacking balls delivered from those positions. When the ball is in the half-space, an overlapping run will pull one defender over towards the ball, and there will be a shift in the middle. Haaland will pull off the shoulder of a central defender so that he is out of sight, and then sprint towards that space to attack the cross. He has such a good understanding with those aforementioned midfielders that he gets into a position to finish with remarkable frequency.
He is by no means wedded to retaining a central attacking position, though, and he appears all over to help his team. He works hard across the pitch to try and hold the ball up when he is isolated, and his pace and ball-carrying ability make him extremely useful on the counter. He is happy to move wide when Dortmund break, and he shows good composure and vision with attempts to find another player, even when sprinting with the ball (above).
Haaland has already proved he is one of the most capable strikers around, and it is surely only a matter of time before he moves to one of Europe’s very biggest clubs. Many more goals – and with them, trophies – are sure to follow.