Erling Haaland’s folkloric beginning with Borussia Dortmund came out of desperation. Down 3-1 to Augsburg last month, Lucien Favre subbed on the 19-year-old striker in the 56th minute as a last-gasp attempt to retrieve anything out of the match. Haaland, who cost the club a relatively cheap $22 million fee to open the January transfer window, immediately signaled his teammates to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with him at the top. Less than three minutes later, he latched onto a through ball and scored on his first touch, finishing far post with precision to bring his side back to 3-2. Jadon Sancho would tie the match, before Haaland got on the end of Thorgan Hazard’s generous backpass to tap into an empty net as Dortmund took the lead. Haaland would then take a through ball into space past Augsburg’s high line, take 3 touches, and finish far post to complete his 23 minute hat-trick in his Bundesliga debut.
But there was a small technicality: Haaland’s goal-scoring debut wasn’t officially considered a hat-trick by German standards. According to Raphael Honigstein, a proper hat-trick must be accomplished without any other player scoring in between an individual’s goals. That formality did little to quell the exuberance surrounding Haaland. He was already the most exciting youth attacking prospect in European football during his time with RB Salzburg, and that was before the move to Dortmund and the ensuing three-goal debut.
Haaland’s second match against Koln had less stakes, with Dortmund up 3-1 by the time he came off the bench. Yet a goal-scorer is a goal-scorer regardless of circumstance. He poached home a deflected shot for his opener, then received another through ball into space and dribbled around the keeper to slot home into an open net to make 5 goals to open his Dortmund career. He finally got his first start the following week against Union Berlin, scoring an open tap-in off a far post cross in the 18th minute, and adding another from inside the box in the second half. Haaland again came off the bench and tapped in Julian Brandt’s cross on Tuesday in a German Cup loss against Werder Bremen.
“I am still not one hundred percent. I have to get fitter,” humble-bragged Haaland following his brace against Union Berlin.
Haaland has scored eight goals on eight shots through his first four matches with his new club. He is scoring at a rate of just over 22 minutes per goal in Germany. That’s in addition to the 29 goals in 27 matches he scored in the first half of the season for Salzburg, including eight goals in the Champions League group stages. He once scored nine goals against Honduras in a U20 World Cup match.
And while he may not have a signature goal, he does have a signature type of goal: tapping into a wide open net (as he also did against Liverpool this season). The 30-yard blasts and wayward dribbles past several defenders to chip a keeper get the retweets, but one mustn’t hold Haaland’s lack of extraordinary goals against him. His superpower is in his positioning, timing his runs to get in front of net. He is the equivalent of a post-player in basketball taking only easy shots at the rim. His maturity is in his efficiency. The repetition of only the obvious and simple, at this young of age, is his superpower.
Under the realities of the global footballing world, there is a joyful acceptance of Haaland’s current situation with Dortmund. It is understood amongst all - Dortmund supporters, Bundesliga watchers, soccer supporters - that his time in Germany is temporary stepping stone to thePremier League or La Liga. The eventual big-money transfer is part of the equation. Haaland chose Dortmund over RB Leipzig and Manchester United partly due to their history of developing young strikers and selling them on to bigger sides. The inevitability of his departure plays into the intensity of enjoying the moment knowing it will not last. We can see Haaland’s eventual price tag increase with every tap in. We see the ending in real time.
Could we have predicted his performance? Haaland’s easiest comparison is to former Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski due to their imposing physical appearance. Former Dortmund defender Neven Subotic compared Haaland to a “mix of [Robert] Lewandowski and [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang,” while also highlighting the club’s pedigree of developing strikers. Leave it to Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc to attempt to downplay the expectations.
“He’s only 19 years old. We don’t make any comparisons. It makes no sense. Let him just play football and then he will score,” demanded Zorc.
Just play, and Haaland will score. But besides tapping the ball into open nets, which any striker can seemingly do, and dribbling into space, what else does Haaland give? His 6-foot-4 frame implies an aerial ability, though it is even more impressive that he has yet to score off a header for Dortmund. His ability to play off the shoulder of the defensive line and stretch play is essential for strikers in the modern game. Favre uses the word “depth” in describing the verticality Haaland provides. With Bundesliga sides focused on pressing and restricting space, Haaland’s timing and pace gives Dortmund an opportunity to breathe.
“That’s what I think makes the best young players special - their mentality, their attention to detail, their desire to be the best,” said Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch of the 19-year-old’s professionalism.
Haaland comes from pedigree, with his father best known for being on the wrong end of this infamous Roy Keane tackle. He has grown up with the game. Represented by superagent Mino Raiola, every beat of his career, from Salzburg, to Dortmund, to the eventual big money transfer, has been carefully planned in advance. All Haaland has to do is score goals.
“Sometimes on YouTube I see videos of me last year and I ask myself ‘what happened?’,” reflected Luka Jovic about his struggles this season at Real Madrid.
There is always a danger in crowning new strikers as their output is so dependent on their teammates. The 22-year-old Jovic was Bundesliga’s on-form striker last season, with his one-touch, efficient goals translating into 17 league goals. Following his $66 million move to Real Madrid over the summer summer, Jovic has scored 1 goal in 14 matches while sitting behind Karim Benzema.
But what else could Jovic have expected in moving to Madrid? His struggles, with Haaland’s Bundesliga success, show how much a footballer’s career is determined by top-down planning as it is about brilliant skill or talent. These high-profile transfer moves, or the lack thereof, also reveal the inner workings of a European football transfer. Dortmund established a positive relationship in developing another Raiola client in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, giving them an advantage over RB Leipzig and United. Haaland’s success also plays into Dortmund’s story of developing young strikers, making them even more attractive for future attacking prodigies.
What would you do if you were an 18-year-old soccer prodigy with every option available? What club would you join to develop, and for now long? One wonders where Haaland can improve his game, if someone can be even more efficient than a 100% shot rate. His current style, already mature and incisive, will most likely resemble his game a decade for now, with small nuances of improvement. Will his pedigree and representation, there is an inevitability about Haaland’s success. We know he will score. We know how he will score. We know he will one day play for a global club. The only thing remaining is the passing of the next 15 years.