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Hail Haaland, City’s goal machine

Erling Haaland posing with the EPL trophy, after Manchester City were crowned champions on Sunday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

A year ago, on May 10, 2022, Manchester City announced a new signing that would supercharge their English Premier League title bid for the 2022-23 season.

At just 21, Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland – who joined for a fee of around £51 million (S$85.5 million) – had already established himself as one of the most prolific scorers in European football.

With 29 goals in 27 games for Austrian side RB Salzburg, and 86 goals in 89 matches for Dortmund, it was clear he had the potential to become a world-class striker.

His arrival in June was met with excitement but also curiosity.

Haaland was joining a team who were already stacked with attacking talent, even though manager Pep Guardiola did not have a proper No. 9 in his ranks.

That begged the question, would he fit in, especially when City had been winning titles without a target man? Was he able to adapt to the demands of the Premier League?

The answer? An emphatic yes in just his first season in the English top flight.

Record breaker

Haaland’s numbers have been nothing short of extraordinary.

He has scored 52 goals in 50 games in all competitions so far – 36 in the Premier League, 12 in the Champions League, three in the FA Cup and one in the League Cup.

The 22-year-old has already broken multiple records in the process.

He has the most number of goals in a season for City, surpassing Tommy Johnson’s 38 from 1929. His 52 goals are also the most scored by a Premier League player across all competitions, beating the 44 by Mohamed Salah in 2017-18 and Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2002-03.

Only Dixie Dean, who scored 63 in 1927-28, has more goals in English football during a single top-flight campaign.

Haaland’s 36 Premier League goals in a single season is another record – the previous mark was 34 shared by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole in 42-game seasons.

The Norwegian hotshot took the fewest games (19) to score four hat-tricks in the league – van Nistelrooy needed 65 games. He is also the quickest to score 10 league goals in a season (six games), continuing that momentum by netting 20 in 14 matches and 30 in 27.

In the Champions League, he took just 25 games to reach 30 goals, which is also a record.

“I didn’t expect him to break the records in the first season, to be honest, but I knew that he would fit in – that the team, the coach, the environment would take him to a higher level,” Otto Addo, the former Ghana manager who mentors young players at Dortmund, told CNN Sport.

Deadly in the box

Despite his numbers, Haaland is not a flamboyant, flair player who excites fans whenever the ball is at his feet.

He is more of a typical poacher, or a striker who is always at the right place at the right time inside the box.

It helps when he has a teammate in Belgian playmaker Kevin de Bruyne – one of the best passers of the ball – who is able to spray passes to him from all angles.

All Haaland needs to do is to know when to pick the right timing to advance into the opponents’ box, and it is there where he is the most effective.

Of his 36 Premier League goals, 12 were in the six-yard box, 16 were in the penalty area, and only one from long range while the remaining seven were penalties.

“He’s learnt to be patient, to wait for the situation in the box and to take the right runs inside the box,” Addo said of his poaching skills.

He knows all about Haaland, having worked on all the technical aspects of the game with the youngster at Dortmund.

He believes that it was in Germany that a complete striker was developed, scoring more goals with his right foot and head rather than just his stronger left foot, as well as improving movements off the ball.

“He has the mindset, he has the ability to score, to run, to have the right positions, to be hungry,” added Addo.

“If he keeps this hunger, then surely, he will be the best striker ever. He’s still young and he will improve even more. He will be the best player on this planet one day.”

What makes him so good?

Being adept technically makes one a good player, but having the physicality is important as well, especially in the Premier League where it is all about the toughness and the quick transitions.

At 1.94m and 88kg, his frame could work against him as he may sometimes need to take an extra touch on the ball, but Guardiola would know that dribbling is not his forte.

City have technically gifted players, with the likes of de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva able to pass the ball around and keep possession, so much so that pundits have previously argued that the team play better without Haaland.

But what Haaland offers is an option for the team to knock the ball long whenever required. When that happens, he is already good at picking the right timing to dash into the box, and his strength is an added advantage.

City were used to playing with small forwards in the past like Sergio Aguero (1.73m), Gabriel Jesus (1.75m) and their current second striker Julian Alvarez is 1.7m.

With Haaland, however, he has a presence up front, can press opponents with his electric pace, and he has solid upper body strength that does not allow him to be knocked off the ball easily.

Combine his physical traits with the understanding of perfect movement, his relentless mentality to score goals, and his lethal touch in front of goal, Haaland – nicknamed “Robot” by fans for his effortless scoring prowess – is quite nearly the complete No. 9.

“If you were building a centre-forward from the ground up, Erling is what you would be left with,” Shearer told The Athletic when asked about what constitutes the perfect striker.

“He’s a goal machine, someone who is quick and direct, who is physically strong and good in the air, who can score with both feet and whose positioning is fantastic.”

Mentality monster

After scoring his 45th goal of the season, Haaland took to Twitter to jokingly reveal his “magic potion” behind his goalscoring feats – a big glass of milk.

Perhaps that was the reason he was letting out so much wind. Bayern Munich’s Leon Goretzka can attest to that, as the midfielder was seen holding his nose in their Champions League quarter-final against City, while a grinning Haaland beside him happily rubbed his stomach.

But jokes aside, Haaland is serious both on the pitch and training ground. In modern football, it is not enough to be good technically and physically, a world-class striker has to also constantly have the right mentality, the hunger to score goals.

City captain Ilkay Gundogan shared that Haaland is always the first to arrive at the training ground.

“Erling is just a big professional. You can see it from his attitude. Not just on the pitch, also off it,” he said in an interview on the club website.

Jack Grealish also called Haaland “the best professional I have ever seen”, while Silva believes that the Norwegian is close to the levels of his Portugal teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.

“He has definitely got the same mentality as Cristiano, always wanting to be in the box, always wanting to score. He doesn’t care if he touches the ball one or two times – when he touches, he scores,” he said on the Arab News daily.

Father knows best

Haaland’s father Alf-Inge, a tough-tackling City midfielder before the 2008 Abu Dhabi takeover of the club, has been credited with carefully managing his son’s steady rise through the ranks of European football.

Haaland made his debut for his hometown club Bryne aged just 15 before signing for Molde, then managed by former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, in 2017.

At Bryne, it was rare to see Alf-Inge on the sidelines during training sessions.

“He left Erling on his own because he could see that Erling had fun, developed, got better and better in a safe environment,” Alf Ingve Berntsen, who coached Haaland for nearly nine years as a youth player there, told CNN Sport.

“But as it became clear that Erling is something special and he had to move from Bryne to Molde... Then his father became very important, to prepare Erling for how to meet a new job, how to be accepted in the world, how to be a professional.”

Less than two years later he moved again, joining Salzburg.

There was then speculation of a reunion with Solskjaer at United, but Alf-Inge believed Dortmund were the better option because the German club had a reputation for developing young talent, and that they were willing to back Haaland fully.

Earlier in May, Solskjaer revealed that while he was at Molde, he had pushed United to sign Haaland, but the Red Devils refused.

Slow and steady wins the race, and Alf-Inge was there at every small positive step forward that Haaland took.

Can he become the world’s best player?

So where does Haaland go from here?

He has often been compared to Paris Saint-Germain’s French superstar forward Kylian Mbappe, 24.

Both players started their senior careers in 2015-16, with Haaland at Bryne and Mbappe playing for AS Monaco in Ligue 1.

When it comes to goals, Mbappe is ahead with 243 club goals in total, while Haaland has 187. The former has played more games – 323 to Haaland’s 233.

Mbappe’s highest-scoring season was in 2020-21, when he netted 42 goals for PSG. He is currently at 40, well below Haaland’s 52.

In assists, Mbappe is again ahead with 115 to Haaland’s 44.

But at the rate Haaland is going, it will not be a surprise if he catches up, though Guardiola – who had said that Lionel Messi is the best player he has ever seen – has played it down.

“No one can compare with Messi, it will not help Erling, but in terms of goals and mentality, yeah,” said the City boss, who coached the Argentina star at Barcelona.

“Messi has done it every season in the last 10 or 15 seasons, Erling has got to the same level in terms of goals. Messi is the most complete player I have seen in terms of vision, dribbles, passes, competitiveness. Hopefully Erling can be so close like Leo.”