Erling Haaland has stormed to 50 goals in the Premier League in just 48 games, smashing the record previously held by Manchester United legend Andy Cole.
Haaland’s rise to stardom in England has materialized so quickly that some fans consider his ridiculous output the norm where anything less raises the eyebrows of critics – a vacuum into which consistent players like Mohamed Salah find themselves.
Many components make Haaland a complete player – speed, agility, physicality, shot power, and more. However, the hallmark that establishes him as an elite striker is cleverness. It does not only refer to Haaland’s efficiency in picking the right finish but also the ability to regularly get into threatening positions before collecting the killer pass.
Traditional strikers position themselves between opposition center-back pairings to pin them back, creating space between the defensive and midfield lines that invite creative midfielders to occupy and find piercing passes.
The screenshot below is a suitable example from the Manchester City draw against Liverpool in November.
After City bypassed the Liverpool press, Julian Alvarez found space between the lines since Erling Haaland and the winger’s positions had pinned the back line deep, from which City produced a dangerous chance.
From similar positions, strikers must execute timely runs behind the defensive line, which may sound like an easy task in theory but is extremely difficult to convert on the pitch.
Since strikers are often the highest-situated player on the offensive line, playing off the shoulder of the last defender, it is natural to either sway offside or fail to gain enough momentum to race ahead and beat the defender to the ball.
To mitigate this, center forwards work on several movements that either mislead defenders to create space or help them gather enough steam to accelerate behind the opposition’s defensive line.
Haaland has several such movements in his arsenal, like out-to-in and in-to-out runs, but his strength arguably lies in his blindside movement.
A blindside run is a motion where a player attempts a run behind a defender who does not see it because he is focusing on the ball. To execute such a run, an attacker positions himself on the shoulder of the defender so that the opponent cannot see both him and the ball simultaneously.
Haaland scored a goal by deploying this run in his first Premier League game last season against West Ham United after charging through their center-back pair while getting on the blindside of Kurt Zouma.
In City’s famous thrashing of their Manchester rivals last campaign, Haaland executed this movement on Raphael Varane (red), an experienced four-time Champions League and World Cup winner, to get on the end of a gorgeous pass from Kevin De Bruyne.
Haaland has continued to score goals through this movement this season. Most recently, against Chelsea, Haaland’s blindside run behind Axel Disasi opened the scoring in the second half.
Manipulating and finding space
Erling Haaland is astute at creating room by baiting defenders or identifying space before the opposition reads the situation.
Going back to last season’s Manchester Derby, for Haaland’s hattrick goal, the Norwegian jukes Lisandro Martinez with a horizontal run to create space vertically to drop into and convert the cross from Sergio Gomez.
Sometimes, no movement can also be the best movement. In City’s opening Premier League match of 2023-24 away to Burnley, Haaland maintained his position outside the 6-yard box while the defensive line dropped deep – allowing the striker to get on the end of Rodrigo’s header with no pressure.
The Norwegian’s landmark 50th league goal against Liverpool demonstrated his aptitude to recognize space. In the image below, Haaland identifies the wide gap between Joel Matip and Virgin Van Dijk as the play develops on the left with Nathan Ake.
By the time the Dutch center-back is in a position to pass, Haaland has drifted into the space faster than Liverpool’s defenders, who react too late as they watch City’s No.9 create history after a touch and finish.
Erling Haaland has developed into a remarkable striker at just twenty-three with at least a decade ahead to improve and fulfill his limitless potential. The Norwegian striker has already etched his name in Premier League history by breaking multiple records in less than two years in England.
Praise comes with expectations to meet high standards consistently, and Haaland has so far met them, but he may have to confront a period of hardship down the line that will test his mettle. During this time, he will certainly have to deal with storms of criticism.
But in the end, there is almost no doubt that Haaland will pull through and deliver. Like Pep Guardiola said, “The people want him to fail, the people expect he won’t do it, but I am sorry this guy is going to score goals all his life.”