07.08.2022
Erling Haaland is ready for his next step up in Pep’s Manchester City team, says Fjortoft

When did I first realise that Erling, the son of my former team-mate Alfie Haaland, was a phenomenon? Was it from all the talk of Alfie’s boy among our group of old Norway players? Or when I first saw him play at Molde at 16?

Was it when he scored nine goals in one game for Norway’s Under-20s? Or when he texted to tell me I’d gone to the wrong game after I missed him hit a hat-trick on his Champions League debut aged just 18.

Erling moved to Molde from his home-town club Bryne, a small place in Rogaland county on the west coast of Norway. Don’t make the mistake of saying he is from nearby Stavanger, or he won’t talk to you again!

Byrne is farming country, with down-to-earth people. The caricature in Norway is that they don’t speak much. In fact, they speak if they have something to say. Otherwise, they keep quiet. They don’t suffer fools. You can see a bit of that in Erling.

But we had heard about the Haaland boy a little before then. I played with Alfie at the World Cup in 1994, a golden era for Norway. We hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1938 but we’d made it by knocking out Graham Taylor’s England in qualifying.

Most of the squad were playing in the Premier League. I was at Swindon and then Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Barnsley, Alfie at Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Leeds. There were about 20 of us Norwegians in England and we would get together every year for a big lunch with our wives. We were like our own special club and loved playing for our country together.

We would all end up going our separate ways, but we stayed in touch. And there was some talk about Alfie’s boy. Alfie is proud of all of his family. But in football circles, it was this young Haaland we kept hearing about.

We didn’t really see him properly until the move to Molde, where he played under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, another of Alfie’s former Norway team-mates. He was a thinner, lighter version of what he is today. All arms and legs, still growing.

Why Molde? They’re big in Norway but they’re not exactly a European giant. Maybe some people thought Alfie let sentiment get in the way, because Ole was the coach? That’s just not how it works with Team Haaland, as I have christened them. They make calculated decisions.

Solskjaer was a finisher. Who better to school a teenager who still had much to learn? They could have taken him to the top clubs in Europe. But Alfie and his family are too smart for that. They wanted him to develop. As a striker, I knew the value as a teenager of sometimes playing against slightly weaker opposition, where you get lots of chances. Some coaches think it’s too easy. I say you’re learning your craft, practising your finishing at a level where you’ll get plenty of scoring opportunities.

I guess Norway discovered him a year into his time at Molde. They went to Brann Bergen and Erling, still looking like a college kid, scored four in 17 minutes. Watching it on YouTube, you will recognise those distinctive runs from deep, the powerful stride, the defenders embarrassed and the familiar cool finishing. Everything we have become used to now. That made everyone sit up and take notice. It was a little like when Wayne Rooney scored that goal against Arsenal at 16. Except that Rooney was almost a man at 16. Erling wasn’t.

When did the world begin to notice? Maybe it was time a couple of years later when he scored nine goals against Honduras in the Under 20 World Cup. Even in Under 20 football, that is something else. In Norway, we knew and by the time he was 18, all the important scouts knew. But for most people he still stayed under the radar.

There was a chance to move at 19 and by now the big clubs were mobilising. There was a big offer from Juventus on the table. I’m sure there were other big clubs. His choice? Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga. It is the Bundesliga of sorts, but they will say as they look down their noses in Germany: ‘It’s Austria!’ But I had played in Austria so I could understand what Team Haaland were doing. Salzburg are by far the strongest, richest team so he would have lots of chances and score plenty of goals. Again, he could develop his goalscoring skills. And they would be in the Champions League. So it was a step up, but in a secure, controlled environment.

So when did I know for sure that he was something special? When he made his Champions League debut against Genk, Liverpool were in the same group and we debated with my TV producers which game I, as a Norwegian, should be at. Liverpool at Napoli was the bigger game but there was already interest in Norway in this prodigy. I went to Naples. And Erling had scored a hat-trick by half-time and they won 6-2! I got a text from Erling at the final whistle: ‘You went to the wrong game!’ I don’t think I’ve missed a game of his since.

Salzburg played Liverpool in the next game. Erling only came on after 56 minutes and was up against Virgil van Dijk. Of course, I was keeping a special eye on him and this was the night I truly realised how good he might be.

The runs he was making, against top-class defenders, were unbelievable. He was drawing them out of position, creating space. He was 18! This is a craft it usually takes years to develop. And he had come on as a sub in what was already a high-scoring game. He scored after just four minutes to make it 3-3. Salzburg lost 4-3 but what an impact he had had made. In 30 minutes, he could have scored a hat-trick.

He was running into space with ease past Van Dijk. I asked the Liverpool defender afterwards about Erling. ‘We won the game, which is the main thing. I didn’t see a lot of him,’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess for a striker it’s good if a defender doesn’t see him a lot!’ I didn’t get another question!

But it was true. He has these ghost-like runs which seem to blindside defenders. He can create space for himself because he will make a feint and draw the defender and then change direction. He was doing it at Anfield against Van Dijk and Joe Gomez. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The defender is always on the back foot, reacting to what he striker does. He doesn’t know where the striker will run. But Erling can exploit that almost like no other striker.

His timed runs are unbelievable. He never goes offside. Defenders hate this kind of player. He can find the defender he wants to play off and bully him with those runs and when he has the space, he has those powerful legs striding out. It just like in the jungle, where the strongest animal will look for the weakest in the herd. He will find where a team is vulnerable.

Like with Rooney, because of their strength, which you can see so obviously with your eyes, people don’t always look closer and see what good footballers these players are. The way they read the game is like a sixth sense. Rooney was underestimated in that as well because it looks so instinctive.

Watch his runs. This is a man who understands football and his brain can react quicker than even the best. Erling sees space before anyone else, then, with the run he can create that space himself. So if you understand him, he is so easy to play with. He and Jadon Sancho were brilliant like that together at Borussia Dortmund.

By now, Erling wasn’t really a secret but his development at Salzburg had surprised everyone, including Team Haaland. I guess the plan was to stay another year but eight goals in six games in the Champions League showed he was ready to step up again.

There was the chance to go to Bayern Munich, but they had Robert Lewandowski and only play with one striker. There was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s famous private jet flight from Manchester to Salzburg to talk him into joining Manchester United. You wonder what might have happened if Ole had managed to persuade him? But football is full of what ifs! It wasn’t as if he turned down Ole and United. As Team Haaland said, he chose Dortmund.

If you move to Manchester United, that is an end-game transfer. You don’t do two years there and move on elsewhere. It’s a move for the best years of your career. And it wasn’t time for that move. Dortmund had the reputation for developing young players in Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They offered the chance to develop outside the bubble of the Premier League.

Dortmund was just big enough to test himself. They had huge crowds and the Yellow Wall, which would have been an attraction. But despite how good they are, Dortmund is still a relatively small city, a little bit off the beaten track.

I was there for his first game at Augsburg. Erling was on the bench. Dortmund’s head of communications was telling me there was no chance to interview him after because he was just a sub. Then he came on after 56 minutes. Within three minutes he had scored, so I texted the comms guy: ‘Can I have him now?!’ ‘We’ll see,’ he replied.

He scored his second in the 70th minute and I sent the comms guys a heart emoji. And he sent one back, so I knew there was a chance. By the time Erling completed his hat-trick, the comms guys was with me in the tunnel celebrating! And, yes, we did get him for an interview.

A word on those interviews. Yes, sometimes Erling likes to play with interviewers. He makes you think twice about a question you asked. But remember, he comes from that part of the world where you don’t have to talk too much unless you have something to say. But he is a great young man to talk to, it’s just sometimes we expect a teenager to come from a Champions League game and be Barack Obama.

But he took it well. He doesn’t really care about the clothes, the watches, money. He cares about his mum and dad, his brothers and sister. It is that family unit that has allowed to him to get to where he is and ensured he hasn’t lost his way en route. Sometimes having your family and your dad as advisor can be bad. Not with Team Haaland. Alfie knows the pitfalls.

That game against Augsburg announced him in Germany. It showed them straightaway that he was serious. There was immediate excitement and I remember saying on German TV the morning after: ‘It’s good that he’s waking up in Dortmund not Manchester this morning.’ Because the celebrity factor is just that bit less intense in Dortmund.

What he has achieved in the Bundesliga is unbelievable: 62 goals in 67 games and 86 in 89 games in total. This is the league of Gerd Muller, Lewandowski. It’s a scoring rate that only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can approach in the top leagues and one which only Kylian Mbappe gets near now in France, or Mohammed Salah in one of the best seasons.

Now there is another step up because we all know the pressure and the media and TV is bigger again in England. It will all be about Pep against Klopp, City against Liverpool and Darwin Nunez against Haaland. But he has to live with that and, with the support of his family, he can.

It’s interesting that again they have made a graded step. They have gone with a coach in Pep Guardiola who can develop Erling and add to his game in a possession-based team when they say he’s a counter-attack striker. At City it will be different. He will have to adapt and learn.

I know him well enough to say he will adapt and learn. He’s a 24-7 athlete in his preparation, diet and mental attitude. But City will also have to adapt to him as well. He brings something that Guardiola’s City team has never really had, a direct centre-forward. So it is going to take time to learn his runs and feints. But they will surely create chances for him and he will surely score them.

I know people are already making a judgment after the Community Shield. He missed an open goal! Van Dijk had him in his pocket! But on a day where he clearly wasn’t at his best, he still might have scored a hat-trick. It might take weeks to see this team and player come together. He is human being after all. It’s not like buying a tool for your car which fits straightaway.

In his core, he won’t change. His family will ensure that. Every year, we organise a charity day with the Crown Prince of Norway and his family. We have a team called Skaugum United — Skaugum being the estate where the Royal Family live — and we play a game there with group of disabled footballers. This year the game was the day after he had announced signing for City. But Erling was there, in my team, along with his youngest sisters who also played, and Alfie. I signed them all for my team! You can imagine the interest around him. He is the most famous Norwegian. But he showed up and was great with the kids. We had a fantastic day.

But as the hype intensifies and the number of journalists and headlines magnify, you have to change to survive in this circus. That’s why it’s so good he has Alfie next to him. Erling is a fantastic young man and in many ways like any typical 22-year-old. It’s just that he’s one of the best strikers in the world. And he has the potential to take another step and improve again, which is frightening.

Welcome to England, Erling, And welcome to your dad’s old club. We’re going to enjoy watching the next step up.

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Sport Erling Haaland is ready for his next step up in Pep's Manchester City team, says Fjortoft