The Erling Haaland Dilemma
I decided to (attempt) massively limit my social media during the summer, ideally only checking it before I eat breakfast and then spending the rest of the day away from it. Focus on things that are more life-giving. Yesterday though, some news threw that goal out the window. 3–4 text messages friends and a Bleacher Report notification alerted me to the news I had already anticipated: Erling Haaland had joined Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.
Every fan of a sports team gets the same question whenever someone with such big name value leaves — “How do you feel about this?” and I’ve been given the pleasure of answering this in private to a myriad of people. Each time though, it’s stayed relatively short, but I’d like to elaborate on my thoughts because my opinion stems from a lot of things and touches on a lot of areas of football.
For starters, I feel like it’s important to clarify a couple things so they don’t get lost in my pros and cons here:
- Erling Haaland is a phenomenal player who I love, his game against PSG in the Champion’s League brought me one of my favorite moments as a fan in recent memory. I will almost certainly be focused on his cons rather than his pros today, that does not mean he is exclusively ‘bad’.
- For the price he was purchased, especially for a club who have unlimited money, he can never truly be a bad signing. City got a bargain, regardless of my ensuing thoughts.
The City Side:
For starters, I want to look at it from a Manchester City perspective. There are three pieces that come into play when evaluating a transfer and that is performance, potential, and tactical fit. (More on this in a future article…)
Performance is first, and I’m going to say something that most Dortmund fans will agree with while other fans struggle to believe: Haaland has been bad. Not less good, not average, bad. His ability to still score despite that is certainly admirable, and really sums him up as a player quite well, but his quality on field has plummeted since his first injury this season.
Delving further into this, there are a few problems. Maybe the largest is his complete inability to play within medium and tight spaces. This was always a concern people had, but it was never as bad as it was in the past 3–4 months. One of his strongest skills, counter-attacking, has struggled as well. Often in his first year at the club, Haaland could receive the ball at the half line and beat 2–3 defenders on his own. For whatever reason, that has ceased entirely. I personally theorize that it is a combination of more thorough scouting on how to stop him specifically, as well as some luck wearing off. He too frequently lost control of the ball and won it back in those scenarios last season, those kinds of chances don’t often keep falling to you. Learning how to play him on counters is more possible than previously believed, and we’ve seen teams do it.
A few other things worth noting about him this season: One of the injuries that plagued Haaland this season was a hamstring injury, a muscle heavily used in sprinting. It does not seem to have slowed him down over longer distances, but his acceleration pace feels slower. This is part of his counter attack capabilities stagnating. Last thing: His heading ability is up there with the best now! There was reports last summer that he was working with Hummels (one of the best aerial duelers of our generation) and it seems to have paid dividends. He is one of the most dangerous box threats you’ll find now, both aerially and on the ground.
Next is his potential, and I think we have a habit of looking at a young player and saying “he can get better” without considering “how is that going to actually happen?”. With Haaland, there are at least two main areas that I think are worth pinpointing with his development, one larger than the other.
Starting with his technical capabilities to play within tight spaces. In the Bundesliga, you do not get time and space to make a decision before you’re closed down, especially if you’re Erling Haaland. That window in the Premier League is even smaller. The good news though (or bad, depending on who you are) is that Haaland has demonstrated his ability to have an exceptionally high technical ceiling despite stereotypes about his size. When the season began, I was convinced we were watching an entirely different player, but in the end missing 16 matches seemed to entirely derail that development. For me, that ceiling still seems very much attainable, and Pep Guardiola is a, uh, pretty good coach.
The second is defensively related, and I’ll be relatively brief because it’s heavily tactically dependent but he does not seem to have the engine to press consistently. He might not ever need it, but he can burn out quickly if asked to do it. He seems to keep a somewhat moderate pace when pressing, probably to conserve energy for counters, but he is less of a factor on defense than he can be. He is good at pressing, very intelligent (Hey Jesse Marsch, thanks.) with every small detail of his movements ranging from timing to body shape, it’s just the energy levels are a concern.
Alternatively, I have a thing for the guys like Jude Bellingham who run so much you question whether or not they run home after the match, and this ‘concern’ is completely normal across 95% of strikers.
Finally is the tactical fit, the place my title is really directed at. Obviously, it is difficult to truly predict scalability, but Haaland poses a dilemma for a team like Manchester City so heavily reliant on sustained pressure. While he might never be a player who gets a hundred touches in the match and creates for his teammates (Harry Kane) it would be best for everyone involved (except the opposition) if he at least contributed. Particularly against top tier opposition who will attempt to compete, Haaland’s current performance level poses a massive tactical problem for a City team who currently involve not just ten players, but all eleven.
To avoid creating some brand new tactical framework, and focus on currently, I think the best way to make Haaland work is purely situational. Do you play him against a team like Liverpool, who will press you intensely? Probably not, he doesn’t act as an effective enough outlet to be an escape rope and having him drop deep to link for wide outlets is risking a turnover in a bad spot. What about a side like Real Madrid in the second leg? That’s a game Erling Haaland wins you. His presence in the box is likely enough to capitalize on two center-backs aren’t good in the air, and he causes enough havoc around the box to aid in other players scoring without touching the ball himself.
In part too, a player like Haaland can also be very dangerous against Liverpool because of his ability to counter, but I think he makes you a bit weaker defensively. Fascinatingly, he treads a strange line between being bad against low blocks due to his poor ball-playing ability, while also being bad against high pressing teams due to his lack of hold-up play. There are very situational pros and cons to him as I’ve tried to describe.
So if you’re Pep Guardiola, assuming all things the same, the best way to get the most out of Haaland will be mostly situational. If you relieve some reliance on central progression, you can probably play him every game and use him as more of the counter-attacking/box presence player he is at Dortmund. I anticipate success for Haaland either way, but the success of the team on a larger, longer term scale (how titles are won…) hinges on him being used at the opportune moments. I genuinely think if he plays 49/50 matches, City end up with less success overall, but if he is used in the right moments, there’s a chance he is what pushes City into invincible territory.
The Dortmund Side:
Could you imagine an article that talks about squad creation and doesn’t mention Moneyball? Yeah, me either, and this won’t be one of them. Here’s why losing Erling Haaland is a positive for Borussia Dortmund:
For a side like BVB, Haaland will have to be replaced in the aggregate because anyone his level will be a mammoth amount of money. The best way to do that is, two fold. For an almost comedically poor defensive side, it begins with the defense. Sule and Schlotterbeck being signed is indicative of how Dortmund’s intentions here, and likely doesn’t tap into the money earned on Haaland’s sale.
Moving higher up the pitch and considering the forward line, there are two things that losing Haaland does to your attack: loss of a consistent goal threat and a lack of consistent way to beat a low block. The latter of which Dortmund have struggled with for the entirety of the time I’ve followed the team, but the first has already been addressed. Karim Adeyemi is a player who, in my eyes, fits Marco Rose better than Haaland while still providing a substantial goal threat. Adding onto that is the continued improvement of Malen over the course of this season and the goals will continue to flow. The low block issue will continue to be a difficulty that Rose tries to address, and will likely be a piece of something greater tactically, rather than personnel.
More difficult to predict is how Rose reacts to this tactically. I always felt like Haaland wasn’t exactly his type of player, and losing him might allow him to play an XI closer to his ideal. Malen and Adeyemi are two of the fastest players in the Bundesliga and can both spring off runs that gash through an oppositions entire defense, their ability to spontaneously create from a carry is quite formidable. Reus continues to be one of the best players in the league, both in terms of chance creation and finishing. Most importantly: all three of them can play central and wide, drop deep to help link play, run in behind to stretch a defensive line. Versatility.
A lot of this is quite abstract, and it’s difficult to truly predict how successful Dortmund are after losing him, but I don’t think this transfer is quite like the previous Dortmund transfers. While all of them have been leading to an eventual goal of winning the title, selling players like Sancho, Pulisic and Dembele have been money-driven, while Haaland’s sale gives you two things. Money and the ability to improve the team overall through further transfers, helping to close a gap that was already quite narrow at points throughout this season.
This time it doesn’t feel quite like Dortmund are selling purely for money, it feels like they’re selling to win. The window of opportunity feels present.
Alternatively: I’m an overly optimistic fan, but I really do believe that it is possible to improve a team overall and not miss sales like this as much as people make it seem. Dortmund are not a club who have zero interest in winning, they’re a club searching for alternative ways to keep up with a mammoth cash giant in Bayern Munich, without breaking the bank like they almost did in the early 2000’s.
Every club wants to win, and maybe here both did, in fact, win.