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HomeNewsReal Madrid v Manchester City: How Erling Haaland became a footballing phenomenon

Real Madrid v Manchester City: How Erling Haaland became a footballing phenomenon


Guillem Balague's BBC Sport column

Where to begin with the phenomenon that is Erling Haaland?

The Norwegian 22-year-old has already scored more goals in a Premier League season than anyone before him and is just the second player in English top-flight history to net more than 50 times in all competitions – and the first for 95 years.

All this with a potential eight games left in the campaign, and in his debut Premier League season after his move to Manchester City from Borussia Dortmund for an initial £51.2m last summer.

Haaland’s prolific exploits have helped the champions back to the top of the league table and eyeing a Treble, with an FA Cup final and two Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid on the horizon.

Haaland and Co will visit the Bernabeu on Tuesday for the first leg against the European champions full of confidence this can be their year.

Not since managing Lionel Messi at Barcelona has Pep Guardiola’s approach been influenced more by the presence of just one player, but the frightening thing for the rest of Europe is Haaland’s best could be yet to come.

So how did he get to be the player he is today?

Breaking world records aged five

Born in Leeds in 2000, the son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City defender Alf-Inge Haaland and heptathlete Gry Marita Braut seemed destined for a successful sports career from an early age.

In 2006, he achieved a world record in his age category for the standing long jump with a jump of 1.63 metres. He was five years old.

At youth level – having moved back to his parents’ Norwegian hometown of Bryne aged three – he was a skinny, fast and incredibly dedicated winger.

And even then Haaland was a passionate student of the game, looking to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robin van Persie, Jamie Vardy, Messi and Mario Balotelli for inspiration.

After monitoring his older brother Astor closely – and increasing the pressure on him to make it as a professional athlete, which didn’t happen – Haaland’s parents took a more relaxed approach with the younger sibling.

They allowed Erling to develop more naturally and, as he grew in confidence, he did as well in size and stature at Byrne, his boyhood club where he came through the academy.

Now an imposing 6ft 4ins centre-forward, Haaland’s growth spurt in his mid-teens – which brought the inevitable pains – brought a physique that married well with the attributes he already had to become a professional footballer; technical ability, tactical nous and the right mentality.

“I do the same runs as I did as a 13-year-old,” he says.

Coach Alf-Ingve Berntsen, who trained him for eight years at Bryne, said: “At 13 years old, I already saw that this kid was going to make the Norwegian national team with his very special work ethic and tactical sense.”

A spell at Molde between 2017-19 under the tutelage of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who dedicated hours to Haaland him on a one-to-one basis, helped him develop as a finisher because at that time it was something that did not come naturally to him.

Once it became clear he wanted to be a professional, a five-year strategic plan was prepared by him and his father, which included two years at Molde refining the finer points of his game and playing as many matches as possible. The goals flowed – as did the interest from elsewhere.

Haaland moved to Red Bull Salzburg in 2019, scoring 25 goals in 23 matches including a 45-minute hat-trick in his Champions League debut against Genk which served as conclusive proof he belonged at that level.

From there, he moved to Borussia Dortmund for about 20m euros. Despite serious interest from the likes of Manchester United and Juventus, the forward chose the German club with an eye on the amount of playing time he would get there.

Starting with a 23-minute hat-trick on his debut as a second-half substitute, Haaland scored 86 goals in 89 appearances at Dortmund. It was only a matter of time before he would join one of the biggest clubs in the world – with Manchester City activating his 60m euro (£51.2 million) release clause last summer.

Haaland will be just 26 when his five-year deal comes to an end and many expect him to try his trade in Spain and Italy next, with his desire to succeed in the biggest leagues in the world.

‘No player has influenced Guardiola more since Messi’

Even Haaland himself is a little surprised by how well he has done so quickly at Etihad Stadium.

One of the key reasons for his success has been his trainer, Ivar Eggja, who works closely with his father and acts as a ‘facilitator’ for the striker – finding him a home, looking after his diet and giving him everything he needs so he only thinks about football.

By the time Haaland arrived in Manchester, he already had everything in place.

Another key is the fact he is never satisfied – always looking to improve.

Manchester City’s Italian trainer Mario Pafundi pushes him but also helps him understand his body. This has meant Haaland has so far avoided the injuries that set him back him last year at Borussia Dortmund.

He has gained around 12kg of muscle in the past 15 months as a result of privileged genetics, a regime involving the consumption of enormous quantities of quality food, coupled with hugely demanding training circuits and a relaxed life style incorporating periods of meditation which he uses to ensure his mind is in the right place.

There were questions around how Haaland would fit in to Manchester City’s style of play, whose power comes from the midfield, cutting through the lines and creating space behind the opposition defence, while the Norwegian’s strengths are in the rapid transitions.

City’s style of play when more measured can create a disconnect between Haaland up front and the rest of the team, something Guardiola is aware of and keen to avoid.

After the defeat at Manchester United in January, the City boss admitted the whole side had to get the striker more involved. Haaland was a peripheral figure having only a couple of half-chances and just 19 touches in the match.

The challenge for Guardiola is to play the type of game he wants, while still ensuring Haaland is engaged, occupied, fully focused and generally happy, even if that means occasionally putting in a pass that you wouldn’t normally consider.

The coaching staff have on occasions asked Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva to put balls through to Haaland that they would not normally play for no other reason other than to ensure he stays fully connected with proceedings.

He still feels frustrated on occasions when he does not get the service his runs are calling for, while he also knows he could be more helpful to team-mates in and around the box and off the ball.

‘Passionate about powers of meditation’

“Haaland lives 24 hours for his profession, his work, his passion, what he loves,” said Guardiola.

Those that know him talk of someone who is polite, humble, grounded and self-assured – certainly not someone who is egotistical or arrogant.

Fanatical as a trainer and invariably the first to arrive and the last to leave, Haaland is aware of the need to immerse himself in the necessary rigours required. This includes extensive massages and ice baths, all lessons he has learned from his father’s schooling.

Invariably positive, upbeat and smiling, he loves Italian food, Italian wine, eating well and has little time for social media. He doesn’t read what is written about him because he realises it is pointless trying to control those things you are unable to.

He has the right amount of confidence in himself and tries to thrive off the pressure that comes with the territory.

To help him cope with that pressure, he is passionate about the powers of meditation and its ability to remove stress from his life and also conscious of the need for good quality sleep.

He is not a night bird, nor a big video game or film buff, preferring instead – when not training – to live a quiet life at home, relaxing.

One of Haaland’s great strengths is his ability to shed self-doubt. He is one of the most intensely watched and highest-paid athletes in the world, and he just rolls with it, as if he doesn’t even notice.

He is not afraid of making mistakes and is unfailingly positive in the knowledge that even if he does not get it right he will always get another chance, and another, and another. He is not the sort of person to dwell on past misfortunes.

Haaland is certainly aware that as huge a talent as he is, he is still a work in progress, which is a frightening prospect for the rest of the world.

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