One of the most impressive things about Erling Haaland‘s spectacular start to life at Borussia Dortmund doesn’t even involve a goal that he scored; it came after one that he didn’t.
With his new team 3-1 down to Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal, Haaland drifted away from his marker at the far post and stretched to reach a beautifully lofted cross. He knew that in order to steer his header beyond Bremen goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka, he had to fall at the same speed and angle as the arriving ball. Ultimately, he got his calculation slightly wrong; his header was on target but too close to the keeper, who gratefully palmed it away for a corner.
Most striking is what happened next. Haaland hammered the turf in frustration, furious at himself. It was the behaviour of a forward who hadn’t found the net in 30 matches, not one who had scored his first eight goals for Dortmund at the rate of one every 22 minutes. Haaland has the desperation of all truly elite strikers, which manifests almost as a form of physical thirst. No amount of goals is ever enough; their throats are permanently parched.
Of course, acquiring a striker with such an appetite is great for Dortmund. After all, they don’t have a problem scoring goals — they have scored five goals in three consecutive Bundesliga matches for the first time in their history — but they have a problem scoring the right kind of goals. They need to be decisive in games when they are underperforming. There are few teams more irresistible in Europe than Dortmund when they are at their best, and that is sometimes their weakness; it is as if, seduced by the knowledge of how good they can be, they try to play outstanding football at all times when in truth, pragmatism will often do the trick.
Haaland is a pragmatist. That isn’t to say he lacks elegance or craft; it’s just that his eyes are fixed firmly on the bottom of football’s balance sheet. Accumulation is everything. Just look at the way — again against Bremen — he thrashed Julian Brandt‘s goal-bound strike into the net just before it crossed the line. He did that to make sure Dortmund pulled one back after going 2-0 down; he also did it because he wanted it. That thirst, again, and Haaland is still only 19.
NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen was recently musing about the future of another sporting prodigy: Luka Doncic. The 20-year-old Slovenian is currently thrilling the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks and is already regarded as one of the best players in the game. He will get even better, Pippen remarked, when he starts being selfish, when he starts imposing his will on games. Haaland is already selfish — in the best way. He doesn’t just take responsibility. He seizes it.
Jonathan Harding, the football journalist and author, has rightly warned of the dangers of relying on a player so young. At the same time, it is hard to escape the thought that Dortmund’s attack has finally found the consistent focus it has lacked since the sale of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Arsenal. Paco Alcacer, the Spain international, was prolific in Germany, but his departure for Villarreal, where he excelled in his first game, was understandable. The Dortmund forward line, with so many gifted players who can float along it, needs a fixed point, and for all his considerable gifts, Alcacer does not offer the same physical presence as Haaland. Indeed, few do.
Perhaps, too, Haaland has something else. When he strode forward to score the last of his three goals on his thrilling debut for Dortmund, a 5-3 comeback win against Augsburg, he did so with something possessed by all great strikers: a sense of inevitability. It’s a certain type of body language: The shoulders are proudly out, the head still, the eyes fixed fiercely upon the target. Dortmund saw it every now and then in Alcacer and more consistently in Aubameyang, who scored 141 times in 213 appearances for the Black and Yellows. Yet the former Dortmund forward of whom Haaland is most reminiscent — and excitingly so — is the man who is currently leading Bayern Munich’s title challenge: one Robert Lewandowski.
The immediate comparisons are obvious: Both of them are tall, strong, devastating finishers, with both the movement and the technique of wingers. The other thing they have in common is that they seem to represent an endangered species. Looking around the elite teams in world football, it sometimes appears that traditional centre-forwards are emerging despite current coaching methods, which seem to emphasise the development of wide players who can finish.
That appearance might be unfair; it is simply that the role of the centre-forward has been and always will be very hard to play, especially given the playmaking and defensive responsibilities that the role demands. Just look, for example, at how Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero had to adapt his game to remain in the favour of Pep Guardiola. It is to the credit of Haaland and Lewandowski, then, that both of them are making it look as if it isn’t that difficult. The Norwegian has 36 goals in 26 appearances this season, and the Pole has a mere 35 in 29.
At present, the only things that seem likely to stop either of them in the Bundesliga are injury or transfer abroad. While Haaland has only just arrived in the country, Dortmund will be conscious of the threat of a huge bid from Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona — the latter in sore need of a player such as Haaland — inevitably lie in wait. For now, though, the German club can enjoy a striker who looks set to galvanise their championship ambitions — not just this season but for several to come.