Erling Braut Haaland is the talk of European
football. Salzburg may not have made it through the Champions League group stage, but their
19 year-old forward scored a remarkable 8 goals in 6 games, becoming a fixture in the
daily gossip columns in the process. The label “wonderkid” doesn’t mean anything
more than the obvious: a prodigiously talented young footballer set to make it big. But wonderkids
tend to take a certain form. They’re technically gifted but physically slight; their contributions
are promising but lack end-product; they are individually impressive but lack tactical
discipline. All this makes Haaland a very unusual wonderkid.
There’s no doubt that he offers great technical quality but at just 19 and already 6ft4in
he’s already physically developed too. it’s difficult to think of many attackers who have
been so well-rounded in their teenage years. The final group game of this year’s Champions
League, in which RB Salzburg hosted Liverpool, was the biggest test of Haaland’s career
so far. Having only been a substitute for RB Salzburg’s trip to Anfield in October
(he still scored, just four minutes after coming on), here Haaland started up front
against the European champions and against Virgil van Dijk, officially the world’s
best defender and also runner-up to Lionel Messi for the Ballon d’Or earlier this month. Haaland wasn’t daunted by that challenge. Within 10 seconds of the game starting, Salzburg
had already sent him sprinting in behind Liverpool’s centre-backs. Positioned between Dejan Lovren
and Van Dijk, this early ball seemed perfect for Haaland to run onto. His first touch was decent enough but Van
Dijk’s pace proved crucial — he nipped in ahead, shielded the ball from Haaland,
and was able to clear the danger. Van Dijk had laid down a marker but the youngster had
caused problems already. It also demonstrated his most compelling attribute:
his ability to put himself in space whenever possible. Haaland is most dangerous when he senses space
in open play, in counter-attacking situations. Once he sees a gap, he charges into it. There
was a further example after 20 minutes, when he found himself down the same flank as strike
partner Hwang Hee-chan, and immediately hared into the space inside. The pass was eventually slightly overhit and
trickled through to goalkeeper Alisson. Lovren had got himself back into a deeper position,
but no one was close to actually tracking the run. It was Haaland to a tee: always bursting into
the channels, and his relationship with Hwang – another outstanding talent – is excellent. Seconds later, with Takumi Minamino carrying
the ball forward in an inside-left position, there was a danger of both Salzburg strikers
making the same run. Instead Hwang changed direction, exploiting
the channel nearest to the ball-carrier, which gave Haaland space to attack the far post. Minamino slips in Hwang, but his scuffed pass
was collected by Alisson, with Haaland waiting to pounce. Haaland was also very alert to the possibilities
of exploiting space in behind Liverpool’s full-backs. In this sequence, with left-back
Andreas Ulmer on the ball, Trent Alexander-Arnold moved up the pitch to close him down. Haaland
immediately sensed the opportunity and drifted out towards the left. After receiving the pass, he played the ball
inside and immediately moved into the space vacated by Alexander-Arnold, on the outside
of Lovren. Following some good interplay in midfield,
Salzburg then got Minamino between the lines, ready to send a pass through to Haaland, breaking
through with a classic out-to-in run. His shot forced a good save from Alisson. Haaland sometimes did something similar on
the right — here, eight minutes before half-time, he found space in behind Andy Robertson and
brought the ball infield to play in a midfield runner. But he concentrated more on the inside-left
position, and his second good chance of the night also came from that zone. Again finding space in behind Alexander-Arnold,
and on the outside of Lovren, he received a long crossfield pass from Zlatko Junuzovic
— the type of ball Alexander-Arnold himself loves to play… …and, after bringing the ball down, he found
himself in a fine goal-scoring position but hammered the ball into the side netting with
his left foot. It’s also worth reiterating that, while
Haaland’s game is largely about bursting into space, he’s not a head-down, selfish
centre-forward. Indeed, his link play throughout this game was good, and there were various
examples of him bringing in a team-mate into the play. That was the case after three minutes, when
he set up Jerome Onguene for a long-range drive, then did the same for Hwang shortly
afterwards, before more good back-to-goal play shortly before the hour mark, when he
fed Dominik Szoboszlai. Ultimately, Haaland couldn’t find the net,
Liverpool’s defence stood firm, and he was substituted on 75 minutes with his side 2-0
down and heading out of the Champions League. But while the game ended in disappointment,
this match reflected well upon both Salzburg and Haaland and on the latter’s ability
to potentially thrive in the Premier League. Few strikers manage to get the better of Liverpool’s
defence, and Haaland acquitted himself much better than most. It’s no surprise that all of England’s
biggest clubs are interested in him. He’s such a good all-rounder, with time to develop
further, that it’s easy to imagine him fitting well almost anywhere. It’s also been a while
since once one of the Premier League’s big boys have shelled out serious money for a
genuine centre-forward — really not since Arsenal’s signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
nearly two years ago. But the Norwegian will want regular football,
and his current boss Jesse Marsch has previously suggested a move to Salzburg’s sister club
RB Leipzig might be best for his development. It’s easy to imagine Haaland succeeding
in the Premier League, but the Leeds-born son of Alf-Inge Haaland might not move directly
to the country of his birth, with some speculating that he’ll make a more modest step first
before heading to a superclub.

Is Erling Haaland Ready for the Premier League?

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