For Erling Haaland, the moment of truth comes as he goes through what, by his standards, must be considered a drought. In the countdown to Saturday’s Champions League final against Internazionale, he has scored once in seven games – his worst run since he arrived at Manchester City from Borussia Dortmund last summer and began to dismantle defenders and records.
“You can think of it as one goal in seven games,” Haaland says, a faint smile playing across his features. “Or 52 goals in 52 games and eight assists, I think.” It is actually nine but who is counting them? “I’m not stressed, I feel really good,” he continues, not breaking stride, allowing what he has said to land.
Fifty-two goals: 36 of them in the Premier League, a competition record; 12 more in the Champions League. It is extraordinary, freakish because, to repeat, here is someone playing in a new league at a new club. He is 22, as well.
When Pep Guardiola makes signings, they are supposed to need a season to adapt to his methods. The examples are numerous, the latest being Jack Grealish, who has thrived after a testing debut campaign. Haaland needed only one game and it is amusing to remember the reaction to his high-profile blank in the Community Shield defeat against Liverpool, when he missed two chances, one an absolute sitter.
“I told Jack: ‘Sometimes players need maybe a year or something to come into the new league and new team and everything, and sometimes players come directly in and perform …’” Haaland says, deadpan, and again it takes a second for his audience to realise what he has done, the broad daylight drive-by on Grealish.
I’ve missed chances; I could have scored more. That’s the truth
Then, there is laughter, albeit not from Haaland. “So, yeah, that was one game,” he says. “Community Shield, I missed a couple of big chances. It can happen, it will happen again. What can you do? Nothing. We have to focus on the next thing, the next game and that’s what I did. I scored two goals in the next game [a 2-0 win at West Ham] so it was still not a bad start.”
It is possible to see a bit of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Haaland. The intensity, the obsessive focus. When he tilts his head back and across, pursing his lips slightly, the eye contact piercing, there is self-assurance, arrogance even. But he is funny, too, a little mischievous, a good guy to have in the dressing room. Grealish, for one, loves him. What is clear is that Haaland gets an almighty kick out of what he does.
“It’s always about believing in yourself, trying to enjoy every single day – both as a football player and as a person,” he says. “I try to smile as much as I can.”
One tip for a Haaland interview: ask him open questions, nothing yes/no because you might only get a yes or a no back. It is not heeded.
Q: “Did you set yourself a goal target this season?”
Q: “And, if you, did …?” The curt ‘no’ catches up with the questioner and that is that.
Haaland has been named as the player of the season by the Football Writers’ Association and the Premier League. The Professional Footballers’ Association award is certain to follow. So, what about the Ballon d’Or? “I don’t think of this,” he replies. “I think of winning the next game.”
The next game is the biggest of them all, the one that Haaland wants to win more than any other. It is the same for everyone at City. When they completed the domestic Double last Saturday with the FA Cup final victory over Manchester United, Haaland could be seen shouting on the Wembley pitch: “One more game.”
Haaland’s Champions League debut for Red Bull Salzburg in a 6-2 win over Genk in September 2019 was notable for two things – a blistering hat-trick he completed by half-time and a post-match revelation from his teammate Max Wöber.
“Yesterday, our captain told us he was walking with his dog and newborn baby and suddenly a car came, with the windows down and loud music,” Wöber said. “Erling was inside just listening to the Champions League anthem – really loud. This guy is all about football.”
If you search hard enough, you can still see the clip that Haaland uploaded to his Instagram story – he is behind the wheel in his Salzburg tracksuit, it is dark outside, the aria blares – and he has spoken on several occasions about how he uses it as the alarm on his phone, waking up to it every day.
“I say it again – I love this competition and it’s also a really nice song,” Haaland says. “I’ve been dreaming of winning the Champions League for as long as I can remember. It was 2008 [when he was seven], Chelsea v United and when I saw the celebrations [of the United players], I wanted to do that as well.”
Haaland has clicked with City’s assist king, Kevin De Bruyne. He talks of the “special connection” he has with him and a story that De Bruyne told this week spoke volumes about Haaland’s impact. De Bruyne’s eldest son, Mason, who is seven, is a huge Haaland fan and even has the same hairstyle.
“All three of my children have long hair,” De Bruyne said, as he reflected on no longer being the No 1 player in his own household. “It’s not a problem. Erling is a superstar. I see it with the kids at my son’s school. They all have hair like that. It’s funny.”
Haaland is asked whether he would have believed all this at the start of the season – the possibility of the treble, the number of goals he has scored. His first reaction is no. But then he rows back.
“When you look at the team and how close they’ve been with every single trophy, every single season … it’s not like it’s been not possible,” Haaland says. “We have been believing in ourselves ever since I came here.
“I didn’t expect to score this many goals but, again, I could have scored more. I’ve been missing a lot of chances, so I could have scored more. That’s the truth.”
The frightening thing is that Haaland feels he can improve a lot – this from a player who has 35 goals in 29 career Champions League appearances. He has no problem in saying that City signed him to win Europe’s elite competition. Now to do it.
“City won the Premier League two times in a row, for example, before I came here – they know how to win the Premier League,” Haaland says. “The only thing they miss is the Champions League so you can think and read between the words and the lines. I am coming here for a reason.
“Of course I feel pressure. I would lie if I said I didn’t. I’m here to try to do a thing that the club has never done before and I’ll do my best.”