Make Strikers Great Again: Birthday Boy Erling Haaland Is Changing The Game

Celebrating the man who brought the centre forward role back
07:02, 21 Jul 2023

Manchester City’s Erling Haaland turns 23 today. Yes, the treble-winning, Premier League single-season record scorer is still only 23 years old. Haaland already has 207 goals in 253 club games. The striker has notched 24 goals in 25 appearances for Norway. The medals, the goals, the superstardom. Erling Haaland has it all and he arguably hasn’t even hit his prime yet.

One rare quality the birthday boy also has is influence. A hard trait to come by and one that usually only gestates later in a player’s career. Think Andrea Pirlo’s late-term rebrand as the ultimate deep-lying playmaker or everyone finally cottoning on to Claude Makelele and his titular role in his 30s at Chelsea. Young players reach the top of the game, older players shape it.

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But, like the goal records he’s picking off one-by-one, influence is something that has come quickly to Haaland. Already he is leading a shift in the way the sport is played. Football goes in cycles and for much of the last decade and a half, we have cycled away from the role of the traditional centre forward.

Lionel Messi made it cool and appealing to operate as a false nine. A converted attacking midfielder, the Argentine’s deployment up front for Barcelona spawned waves of imitators. Scores of players followed in his wake with the likes of Roberto Firmino, Thomas Muller and Paulo Dybala excelling as strikers who weren’t quite strikers. Even the most successful conventional number nine of modern times, Cristiano Ronaldo, was a converted winger.

Suddenly teams weren’t looking for your classic bang-em-in, big men up top. Even strikers who weren’t nippy, hybrid-players like Messi and Dybala were adapting their game. Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane is a perfect example of a player who changed his approach and has been called a “nine and a half” for his skilled build-up play.

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If you’re in the market for build-up play, Haaland isn’t your man. Instead, the Norwegian youngster has taken the facets that made old-school strikers great and perfected them. Haaland uses his 6’4 frame to score headers. He is an astonishing pure finisher with both feet. His hold-up play is excellent. The City man can dribble and has the speed to get in behind the last defender. Haaland hasn’t adapted his game to the demands placed on the modern striker. Instead, the 23-year-old has changed the very nature of that role to suit him.

Now others want to follow in his footsteps. Victor Osimhen is attracting suitors with his superb displays for Serie A champions Napoli. Lautaro Martinez just enjoyed the best goalscoring season of his career at Inter Milan. When Liverpool came to replace Sadio Mane last summer, they didn’t do it with a fluid, former winger in the same mould. Instead they turned to a classic number nine in the 6’2 Uruguay international Darwin Nunez. 

Of course Haaland is not directly responsible for these players emerging with these skillsets. But his rapid, prolific rise is at least partly responsible for managers seeking out these figures and giving them a platform to shine. That influence has been keenly felt in the way players like RB Leipzig’s Benjamin Sesko and Atalanta’s in-demand Rasmus Hojlund have been perceived too. Already, at such a tender age, people are looking for the “next Haaland”.

But before we crown a new one, let’s celebrate the Haaland we have. The only who set blue pulses racing by bringing the coveted treble home to the Etihad Stadium. The one who has collected more records than a Rolling Stones completist. The striker who made it okay for centre forwards to just be centre forwards again. All this by the age of 23. Imagine what he’ll accomplish in his prime.

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