Some would say that as a top footballer, you more or less have to think you’re the best player in the world (or at least the second or third best), otherwise, what’s the point?
It must be hard to summon up the intent to dominate a game if you don’t believe you’re better than any of the other players on the pitch, while ‘realism’ has probably never helped a striker when they go one-on-one. From basketball players studiously remembering the names of everyone drafted ahead of them, to everything ever said in a heavyweight boxing press conference, a pinch of (slightly misguided) bravado is an essential ingredient for any top sportsman.
So it came as quite the surprise when Erling Haaland, a footballer seemingly blessed with endless reserves of self-confidence, a man who you’d back to dink a goalkeeper to save the whole universe, methodically and respectfully identified a grand total of seven strikers better than him on ‘Topp 3‘, a podcast created by Norwegian newspaper VG.
Not only is it interesting that Haaland considers himself to be that much of a work in progress, but it is also intriguing who he considers himself to be worse than.
Harry Kane has seen his output dip while struggling with injuries, Haaland played in the same league as Werner last season and had a better goal-to-game ratio (with sample size an obvious caveat), while Roberto Firmino, his magnificent impact on Liverpool’s style notwithstanding, is not a prolific number nine like the rest of the players listed, and therefore does not perhaps constitute direct competition for Haaland.
The other four players there? Well, they’re all in their 30s, with Sergio Aguero as injury-prone as ever, and even the great Cristiano Ronaldo beginning to slow down just a tad.
He might not be confident enough to say it aloud just yet, but Haaland must be wondering as he heads into a crucial season for his development … Can that list shrink by one or two (or even more) by the end of the season?
After the most minute of dips towards the back end of last season’s Bundesliga campaign (he went from a ludicrous nine goals in six games to a rather more pedestrian four in nine), it might have felt like talk of breaking into the elite was premature. But the Norwegian excels when it comes to taking the fast track to objectives that most young players can only dream of, and having started the season with nine in seven in all competitions, is back where he seemingly always was.
His latest victims were Freiburg, subjected to a typically surgical finishing display which you’d probably have to label ‘Vintage Haaland’, with his two goals showcasing his unique and devastating combination of speed, finishing and awareness.
His first goal saw him alive to a threatening pass from his newfound accomplice Gio Reyna, and what followed was the type of goal that Haaland makes look deceptively easy, a left-footed finish across the goal into the bottom right corner.
For his second, a similar method, but an impressively varied finish. He caught Philipp Lienhart ball watching and burst into the space behind him to receive Reyna’s pass again, opting for power ahead of precision this time round and finishing brilliantly over the crouching goalkeeper.
Two characteristically Haaland-esque goals based around occupying the space behind the defender on the left, and then using your excellent finishing to make a good chance into a great one – but even if we have seen it before, no-one seems to have any notion of how to stop it.
Indeed, the (admittedly not very comprehensive) underlying data from this season suggests that Haaland may not just be matching his blistering start to life in Germany, but improving on it – he has moved from 1.10 xG (Expected Goals) per 90 minutes to 1.33, so in effect is (so far) sniffing out better scoring chances for himself than he did in his breakout season.
In a period therefore where many of the strikers Haaland named will inevitably begin to regress, the man who has just turned 20 seems to be improving almost constantly, with no indication of his ceiling. And yet the question of his age brings us to a conspicuously absent name on his list, belonging to a certain World Cup winner, Champions League finalist and general goalscoring prodigy Kylian Mbappé.
Haaland may well have considered Mbappé as more of a wide forward than a pure number nine, or perhaps his name simply slipped his mind… but its far juicier to think that Haaland considers himself as having the advantage over his fellow wunderkind.
That Haaland could discount Mbappé, one of the most complete players in Europe, on qualitative grounds is evidence of a striker who is confident in his own completion, and it is admittedly this quality which marks out the Norwegian from his peers.
On any given weekend last season you could see the trademark near-post flick from Haaland (as against Werder Bremen in February), a powerful finish from outside of the box (as against PSG) , or even a towering header (his last minute winner against Fortuna Dusseldorf).
It is understandable therefore that Haaland might think himself as polished a product as France’s Golden Boy – as a striker, he has no weakness. He will always get in great positions, and he can score in those positions in every conceivable manner.
All told, Haaland’s greatest obstacle may well be defined in positional terms. You could not ask for much more from Haaland as a number nine, but though he is a good passer and passable dribbler, it is impossible to play him anywhere else. An inevitable consequence of this is that he cannot always influence matches (through no fault of his own), and he cut a frustrated figure as Dortmund lost to Augsburg earlier in this current campaign, unable to involve himself with Dortmund’s creativity blunted.
Mbappé, who was an unqualified success playing on the right for France in 2018, will never have this problem, effective as he is on his own, in a front two, and in a three-man forward line. Perhaps this is why Haaland took care just to name his fellow central strikers, in the full knowledge that he is as limited by the demands of modern football as the rest of the traditional poachers that he is competing with.
But even if Haaland is aware of his limitations, he knows the seven names in front of him as he seeks to become the best goalscorer in the world. And in a few years time, we can all be confident that he won’t need to make that list.