Biggest league in world ready to groom best striker in world

·6-min read
Soccer players in action
Soccer players in action

THIERRY Henry probably had the strongest case. Dennis Bergkamp had his moments. Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero dominated for their clubs and Harry Kane continues to flirt with the idea. But the world’s best striker never really played in the world’s most popular league. Until now, possibly. Erling Haaland might finally succeed where others fell just short, scaling a height never previously reached in the English Premier League.

Nostalgia might suggest otherwise. The memory plays tricks, replaying highlights through rose-tinted glasses until every Henry volley, Bergkamp flick and Rooney overhead kick feels epoch-making, generation-defining, a rubberstamping of our EPL prejudices. The world’s best No.9s always played in the world’s No.1 league, surely. But it didn’t quite happen.

Lionel Messi straddled the summit for a generation at the Nou Camp. Cristiano Ronaldo kept him company, but only when he joined Real Madrid. Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovich both epitomised the definitive, orthodox striker but mostly in mainland Europe and Kylian Mbappe and Neymar stayed in Paris.

Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Didier Drogba, among others, all flirted with the best-of-a-generation tag, if not quite attaining GOAT status. Besides, there was usually the Brazilian Ronaldo, Romario or George Weah doing things in continental penalty boxes that marginally eclipsed the striking escapades in the EPL.

Haaland is poised to change all that at Manchester City. His birth certificate records a former City footballer, Alfie Haaland, as his father. His freakish physique suggests he’s the son of a Norwegian warrior, raised on long boats and plundering raids. His height, chest and neck measurements were last noted in the wardrobe department on Game of Thrones. When he looms large on the horizon, defenders seem at an immediate disadvantage for not wielding swords and shields.

Haaland is the most efficient battering ram in world football right now, as if scientists heaved trunks of Norwegian wood into a 3D printer and typed in “goal scorer”. In mind and body, he’s the perfect specimen. The 21-year-old has somehow stripped the art of his profession to its simplest, purest form, the physical embodiment of every schoolyard commentator. He shoots. He scores. He leaves overcomplication to lesser footballers. Haaland shoots and scores because he can. Because he scores like Mike Tyson punches or Tiger Woods drives or Roger Federer pings a forehand. His talent, physicality, vision and focus all align to render opposition irrelevant.

He cannot be stopped. And there’s still more to come. That’s the truly, mouth-watering bit. The intoxicating promise of witnessing his emergence from the chrysalis – the leading contender transforming into the finished article – is a genuine first for the English Premier League.

Rooney nearly got there. Cristiano Ronaldo did, but only in Madrid and Kane continues to tease. But Haaland may become for Manchester City what Neymar and Mbappe were for Paris Saint-Germain, the very best of the next generation. He’s bringing fantasy football to the EPL.

His statistics are already ludicrous. Across four Bundesliga seasons, he scored 78 goals in 70 league starts. In the Champions League, against the finest opposition, he knocked in 23 goals with minimal fuss, an unstoppable, streamlined force of lean muscle and quick feet.

As his growth spurt arrived late in puberty, Haaland’s youth coaches emphasised his reading of the game, darting between the lines and spreading possession, anticipating the movement around him. Once he started growing, he added a wookie’s frame to the Jedi mind tricks. His potential in the EPL is enthralling.

But Haaland’s arrival is also a first for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men won a fourth title in five years last season, scoring 99 goals without a conventional striker. Their biggest asset, collectively, was maintaining possession. Haaland’s biggest weakness, individually, is maintaining possession.

According to the Guardian, he makes fewer passes than every other goalscorer in Europe’s major leagues. (for examples, Karim Benzema completes 41 passes per 90 minutes, Mbappé manages 38.9 and Salah 35. Haaland makes just 22, a figure that ranks him 129th out of 193 attacking players in the top five leagues to have played more than 18 games.) Perhaps he’s the window dressing required for those ugly nights in the Champions League knockout stages, when City typically create so much, but put away so little.

Haaland might not pass as much in the build-up. But he rarely misses the end product. Still, a compromise of sorts is required, which makes another intriguing first for the manager. Guardiola hasn’t signed a regular goalscorer since Gabriel Jesus in 2017. In 16 years as a coach, he brought in Lewandowski, David Villa and Ibrahimovic and tweaked their basic instincts, or at least attempted to.

Lewandowski, Villa, Jesus and Aguero, whom Guardiola inherited at City, all adapted their game to suit Guardiola’s intense, possession-based game plan, dropping deep and pulling defenders wide to create space for overlapping mavericks.

Ibrahimovic didn’t. He was not one of Guardiola’s “obedient little schoolboys”, as he disparagingly called his Barcelona team-mates. He did not adapt. He did not survive.

Haaland is similar to Ibrahimovic, in terms of stature and style, but doesn’t appear to share the Swede’s temperament. Plus, the Norwegian is younger, quieter and potentially more malleable. He will heed the lessons from Guardiola’s impeccable history.

Messi scored more goals after Guardiola took over at Barcelona. So did Aguero at City. The coach improves all who choose to listen.

Haaland doesn’t quite fit Guardiola’s template yet, but he will, and when it matters, in title-deciding contests against Liverpool perhaps, or in a Champions League semi-final.

The Norwegian giant might resemble the missing link, physically, the moment when modern man turned up in Northern Europe, axe in hand, looking for Saxon villages to burn. But he’s possibly the missing link, tactically, for Guardiola, giving us the enticing prospect of a complete striker fine-tuning his prodigious talent to serve a complete squad.

And the English Premier League has an authentic A-lister up front, with his best years still to come, a chance to witness the elevation of a fantasy footballer, in real time.

Haaland and Guardiola must walk a complex path together. But their journey promises to be unmissable.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author who has covered the English Premier League since 2000, and has written 26 books.

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