Why Erling Haaland is still struggling with Norway

Erling Haaland is still struggling to lift up Norway to qualify in the major international tournament. 

Manchester City’s lethal striker has been in the spotlight again. It is not for his record breaking goal or anything positive on the pitch, but rather the contrary during the international break. The Norwegian striker has failed to lead his country in securing an automatic spot in EURO 2024 as they were beaten 1-0 by Spain. That means they would have to go through the playoff stage to snatch one berth in the continental tournament. Ståle Solbakken’s men are sitting third and six points adrift from Scotland with one game left. 

As a strong Ballon d’Or 2023 nominee who was a key figure in Manchester City’s treble-winning season, Haaland is expected to replicate his excellent form for his country. Unfortunately, this has proven to be more difficult than anticipated.

The Golden Shoe winner in the U20 World Cup 2019 is more lethal, especially against mid and low level sides. So far, the former Dortmund man has only scored once against an elite team, that being Netherlands. There could be several reasons why he has not managed to lift up Norway, which has been absent from major international tournaments since the millennium. 

Beyond Erling Haaland and Norway’s struggle at international stage

The talent gap

Haaland may have been spoiled by strong second-line support in his clubs. With Norway, however, he does not have this luxury. Apart from Arsenal’s Martin Ødegaard, their midfielders quality is far below the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, Rodri and Julián Álvarez in Manchester City. 

Most of Norway’s players in the squad have been barely featuring regularly at the European’s top level. Only a handful of players, including Villarreal’s Alexander Sørloth, Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Ryeson, Burnley midfielder Sander Berge and shot stopper Ørjan Nyland who is playing for Sevilla, have managed to do so. Napoli center back Leo Østigård, Brentford man Kristoffer Ajer and Celta Vigo forward, Jørgen Strand Larsen have yet been able to seal the spot in the starting XI. 

Such a talent gap has inevitably been one of the reasons why Haaland and Ødegaard would have to carry the team’s burden on their shoulders. To end their misery in international football, they would need the success of the entire team. 

The need for tactical change

The talent gap can be resolved by a tactical change to optimize the team’s potential. Solbakken, is expected to do so for better results, especially with names like Haaland and Ødegaard in the squad. 

Since taking over for Lars Lagerbäck, he has frequently used the attacking 4-3-3 formation, which does not always suit the players’ skill. Sørloth, for example. is frequently deployed as a right winger despite his lack of pace. Solbakken may count on the 18-year-old winger Antonio Nusa on the left side. However, the Club Brugge man is simply not ready to be the key player in big games like the decisive match against Spain.  

The former Wolves manager should take a cue from Steve Clarke, who employs a more defensive tactic and relies more on counter-attacking in a 3-4-1-2 formation. Haaland and Sørloth could be the frontmen, with Ødegaard as the playmaker. Such could potentially help Norway score more goals.

Under Solbakken’s predecessor, they were used as a dynamic duo in a 4-4-2 formation. Both players performed admirably in the first four games of the UEFA Nations League 2020. Haaland contributed six goals and one assist, while the former Real Sociedad forward registered three goals and two assists.  

Alternatively, should they need more support from the second line or someone with better technique and acceleration in penetrating the six-yard box, Nusa can be deployed alongside Odegaard in a 3-4-2-1 behind Haaland. Alternatively, a 3-4-3 formation could be used, where both will be playing wide. 

Norway is likely to take on either Republic of Ireland, Iceland, or Ukraine in the playoff in March 2024, based on the combined results of the current qualifiers and UEFA Nations League 2022/23. Haaland and co will still fight for one of the remaining berths for next summer’s European Championship.

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