It’s a phrase that stands out from our chat at Manchester City’s incredible training facility, his first big interview since joining from Borussia Dortmund for £51million ($61m) this summer, and it is followed by another: “It’s good to feel.” And then he considers things. “I think I’m ready,” he says.
In truth, the Norwegian looks, sounds and plays like he was born ready.
The first thing that strikes me about Erling is his stature. Fresh from the practice pitches — blowing out his cheeks and then laughing — he looms above me. I’ve seen him play, of course, but it’s not until I’m beside him, exchanging horror stories about pre-season (I can’t tell you how much I hated all that running), that I quite get to grips with his presence. And my next thoughts are, “He’s not going to get knocked off the ball too easily”, and “I wouldn’t fancy playing against that“.
The bit about pain stays with me because it is a recognition of something — sometimes to succeed, you have to suffer, to give everything of yourself. It’s also a reminder that you’re alive. You’re not a robot or a machine. You’re a competitor, engulfed by emotion, energised by confrontation. Erling is an all-in player with an all-in manager in Pep Guardiola who is already drilling him “about doing everything at 100 per cent”.
And here’s the other thing; from afar, we’ve been looking at Erling as the hottest property in football, a goalscoring monster and the final piece in City’s jigsaw, who arrives here swaggering and fully formed. But he looks at himself very differently; a player at the beginning of a journey who can improve in every department and, although he expects to deliver, he is eager for experience and adventure. To work and to feel, even when it brings discomfort.
“I think I can improve everything, you know,” he says. “I miss chances with my left foot all the time — I just did it last weekend. If we’re talking about finishing, I have to improve my left foot, my right foot, my headers. There are so many things. That’s what is so nice about the game, you can always improve no matter how old you are, you can get your full potential out. Maybe I can get my full potential out in 10 years.
“I’m still young. I’m still going to develop and I have to develop the right way. I think I will develop really good here, that’s why I’m here and also to perform. It’s a good mix between developing and performing.”
Ten years of Erling getting better? Better in a team which, to use his own description, is already crammed with “insane” players? Better than this? Scary, man.
The subject is goals. It has to be. The feeling, the art, the pressure and hopefully, from my perspective, a renewal. The fashion in football has been a pivot away from the traditional No 9 and towards more flexible forward play: the fine Spain team that passed you to death; Mo Salah and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, talented and deadly with it, but comfortable wide and running in; Lionel Messi and, until he became more static, Cristiano Ronaldo.
City didn’t really play with an out-and-out striker last season. It’s difficult to criticise given how impressive they were in winning the title, but my theory was consistent, that it might cost them in the biggest matches at the biggest moments. As an old centre-forward, I looked at all those chances, those balls into the danger area, and drooled. I even wrote in The Athletic that Haaland could score 40 goals a season for them (not that I admitted this to him).
With Erling now in place at the Etihad Stadium and with Robert Lewandowski moving to Barcelona, is this a return to prominence for my old position? I hope so and I enjoyed that feeling of connection with someone who, no matter the decades between us, shares my ferocious appetite for goals — 115 in 116 games for Dortmund and Red Bull Salzburg — and the inability to quite articulate what it means to score them.
“Yeah, it’s… it’s a good question because when I score a goal it’s… this feeling…” he says.
I can’t help but interrupt: is there anything better?
“No, I don’t think there is. Because when you… It doesn’t matter the goal, when you score it’s just something inside you that’s…”
He pauses again and so I ask again: have you always had that feeling?
“Yeah, always. When I was younger, I was scoring as many as I could and still… It’s this feeling. It’s… when you celebrate your first goal, it’s like, ‘Ahh, I have to do this again’. I get this often. Scoring one and then it’s, ‘Oh, imagine doing this again’. Or, let’s say, for example, you see someone score a hat-trick on Saturday and, ‘Oh man, it would be nice to do this next week’. It’s a feeling I cannot describe. You know what I’m talking about but a lot of people do not know.”
And I do know. It’s the biggest rush ever, a few seconds of lose-yourself giddiness, a magical drug that takes hold of you and doesn’t relent. You always want more. There’s the counter-point, too; when I missed, it lingered. When I missed, it festered. I might have looked and sounded monotone and controlled, but I’d get home and wouldn’t sleep. One restless night would pass and then another. I couldn’t wait to put it right.
There was that big chance for Erling late on in the Community Shield against Liverpool, when he found the crossbar instead of scoring. “When I look back, it’s like, ‘How can you miss there?’” he says. “But, you know, this will probably happen to me again. That’s football. You say you didn’t sleep well and I never sleep good after games.
“But it’s kind of motivation, to score or to do something in the next game. It’s the same when you score two goals – ‘Ah, I want to do it again!’ So actually, no matter what happens it’s motivation and that’s what’s good about it. But, of course, (missing) is not a good feeling! It’s the worst feeling ever!”
Erling is into meditation and the key for a goalscorer is to find a level path through those incredible peaks and troughs. “As a striker, I think it’s really important that when you’re in the game to not think too much,” he says. “If I’m going to go into my next game thinking about the chance I missed last game, it’s not good. You have to go into the game hungry. It doesn’t matter what happened before, if you scored three goals, if you scored zero goals, if you haven’t scored in a while.
“You have to go into the game with the same mentality. And so I think about not thinking too much about it! It’s about using all of it as motivation and not some negative, going into training like this (he puts his head down). You want to be the best in training today. This is also something that helps me a lot, this meditation outside the pitch to just kind of let go of the negative thoughts.”
Is that what gives him the edge, I ask.
“Yeah, I think you have to be mentally strong today with so much else going on outside the pitch,” he says. “You have to have extremely good focus, you have to be strong in your head because it’s not easy being a footballer. Everybody thinks it’s easy.”
Erling is 22 and I catch myself mulling over a strange thought; I wouldn’t want Will, my son, who is the same kind of age, to experience the kind of pressure that Erling does. Why is that strange? Because it hits me; Erling’s life was my life, give or take. I moved from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers for a British record fee when I was nearly 22. Maybe I was in a bubble and protected from that expectation, but I also remember that I relished it. Bring it on, I thought then. Weird.
“Yes, of course it’s pressure,” he says. “I’m playing for the champions, the ones who won the Premier League, so there’s pressure, but in my head, it’s about trying to go out on the pitch smiling as much as I can and to try to enjoy the game. Because life goes fast and suddenly my career is over. You saw that with my father — suddenly it’s over. So it’s about trying to enjoy every single minute of it because I’m really lucky to have this job and to be here.
“In the end, we just want to enjoy playing football, enjoy what our childhood dream was. There will be people talking about you, especially as a striker if you don’t score — then the talk comes — but in the end, you cannot choose what people say, what people read, what people think about you. This is something you just have to live with. And yeah, I kind of enjoy it.”
Still, though, you have to find some way of decompressing. “Normally I train and then I go home and watch football,” he says. “My father plays a lot of golf. I haven’t played in a while but I will start now, for sure. It’s mostly about relaxing, about turning the head off when you can, to rest and get ready for what’s next.”
I would never have conceded this in public when I played, but part of me — a small part, niggling away — felt a twinge of disappointment when my team won and I didn’t score. I wanted to contribute. I craved that responsibility. “The game is a bit different now,” Erling says. “In the end, it’s about winning. It’s about so much more than goals. It’s about playing. And don’t forget assists. They’re really important.”
Is there a secret to being a No 9? Erling thinks for a while. “Maybe it’s to be ready because you know you will get chances,” he says. “It is about being ready for the next action and not thinking of the last one. Because you never know when you can get the ball — a cross, a deflection, a rebound. The next situation is really important.”
We always talk about goalkeepers being a different breed, their positional isolation on the pitch, using their hands, their sense of loneliness when they concede a goal. More than any other outfield player, I believe there’s a touch of that for a striker, too, in that you have to be so single-minded. Greedy, sometimes. Ultimately, you have one task.
“You want the team to be well-functioned,” Erling says. “It’s like a unit and so it’s really important to understand each other, to work hard together so you can achieve things together. As a striker, you have to be a bit selfish. But nothing makes me happier than playing in another player on an open goal and he scores. Nothing! And also when he plays to me an open goal. And this is something really important about being selfish. You have to do it in the right way and not too much. In the right situations, yes. But not too much.”
This is the only part of our conversation where I look at him askance. Playing in another player on an open goal? You what? No, he’s lost me there.
Then again, with all those goals behind him, perhaps Erling can afford to be generous.
He mentions his dad and it’s clear that Alf-Inge Haaland has played an important role in Erling’s outlook and growth. I played against Alfie a few times (and still have the bruises) and the life lesson Erling talks about is spot on. As a kid in a first-team dressing room, the older pros constantly tell you to suck up every moment, to live it and remember because the time goes so quickly. You laugh and ignore them because this is your world and always will be.
And then, before you know it, you’re an old fart on the sofa yelling at the television that things were better in your day.
Alfie’s career was ended by injury, but Erling has dredged the positives from that; live it all and live it now, which is precisely how he plays. And he already has that umbilical connection to the Premier League, to Leeds, where he was born and where Alf-Inge played and to City, where the family moved in 2000.
Back then, City were never too far away from implosion and now they are specialists in excellence, but it’s the same shirt as the one Erling was pictured in as a boy, the same colours, the same rich heritage.
“It’s special that he played here, you know,” Erling says. “And it’s a bit special seeing old clips of him. And also the thought that he actually played in the Premier League, that’s nice, too. It’s different times, as you say, but in the end, it’s the Premier League, it’s England and this has also been a dream of mine to be playing here.”
Does Alfie give him advice?
“Yes, we talk a lot of football. He is also a football freak, he watches all kinds of games. After the Community Shield, he just said to me, ‘Why didn’t you just score that chance?’ Before I played Liverpool at Anfield with Salzburg in the Champions League, he said, ‘Just for your info, I’ve scored at Anfield before so I have more goals at Anfield than you’. It’s a bit of fun.”
Those parental conversations ground you and normalise you. They prick the pressure. But this is in Erling’s blood now, just as it was Alfie’s, his life stretching to this point from the cradle.
“I remember as young as I can that I wanted to become a footballer,” Erling says. “Because of my father, I told myself early I wanted to become better than him. That’s what I said to myself and getting the players up on my wall, the posters and so on… I remember having fun, me and my cousin, always playing and, in the end, it’s a beautiful game because it’s easy. Me and you could stand here playing football.”
I’m not sure my poor knees could take it, but I know what he means.
“My dad kind of printed football in my head early, but he didn’t put any pressure on me about playing,” he says. “It was my choice. But it was quite obvious… Every time he came home from a trip he would bring me a new jersey! But he gave me a good mentality about different things.”
How much did Alfie influence his choice to join City, when so many of the world’s biggest clubs were chasing him?
“He just wants to put things in front of me the best way and, in the end, it’s about me and my feeling and how I see myself in this club,” Erling says. “That was the one thing that kind of triggered me.”
So how does he see himself at City? And what does success look like for him and for this dazzling team, already laden with trophies?
“We come as champions from last year so we have to do the same kind of things they did and hopefully even better,” he says. “In the important games be even better, the Champions League and the cups and also to maintain all the time in the Premier League. It’s not easy as we know. It’s a difficult league, so many good teams, but it’s about building on what they have been having here for so many years.
“I want to come in here and bring my own kind of things to the game and hopefully be better.”
Like I said at the start: scary.
Erling has a headstart in the Premier League. He is a young man acclimatising to “a lot of new things, a new country” — his social media posts from the supermarket are a study in deadpan hilarity — but he also has a backstory, an understanding and a connection, as well as supreme talent.
(At M&S) Bought a bag of Percy Pig (don’t tell anyone)
— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) July 25, 2022
He says he “spoke a little bit about” his transfer to City with Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho, former team-mates at Dortmund, “and we are a bit the same. My father was 10 years in England, so he brought me up in an English banter kind of way. I was born in England, so we have the same funny things. Not taking yourself seriously is really important, to try to have fun with each other. English guys are always good”.
His new colleagues “are nice and the people around are nice”, he says, but this is also City and Pep, whose culture is about making relentless normal. Nice comes with sharp teeth. “It’s demanding,” Erling says. “And I can understand the success in this club (even though) I’ve been here for a month or something. I see how hard the backroom staff are working, the physios, the trainers, how much they demand from you. And also the players – they demand from me and they demand from all the others.”
What do Guardiola’s demands actually entail?
“He’s demanding in his messages about what to do and about doing everything at 100 per cent,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a normal kind of running exercise — do it at 100 per cent, like you do it on the pitch. Train as you play. Easy as that.”
In other words, give 100 per cent, 100 per cent of the time?
“Yeah,” Erling says and he puffs out his cheeks again. “Not less!”
It isn’t a doddle, of course, and nor should it be, but that commitment to effort does seem like a natural thing for Erling. “As I said, when I was young, it was about getting better than my father and getting as good as I can and now there’s something inside me that… I think about football all the time, you know, getting better and what I can do better, these kinds of things. I don’t know where it comes from or how I got it, but it’s there. It’s there.”
Again, it takes me back to my own story, leaving Newcastle, my home city, for Southampton as a young boy and being slapped by reality when I got there. So many of those players were so much better than me and so you’re presented with an equation; work harder than them or go home. For me, it was hours on the training pitch, always practising and honing. And then when training was over, a little bit more. I carried that with me to the end of my career.
“Yeah, I’ve always been shooting a lot,” Erling says. “In the end, scoring goals is the most fun thing about it. When I went to Molde (in 2017), with Ole Gunnar (Solskjaer, then the manager), he was talking about my headers and he said, ‘You cannot even head’, and I was like, ‘Fucking hell, I agree with you!’ And then me, him and Mark Dempsey, who was assistant coach, we did crosses and headers every single day.
“I think it’s important to do a little bit every day. It doesn’t have to be 500 shots, but just a couple to get it in. In the end, it’s about shooting where the keeper is not standing and hitting the goal, but also to get to these positions where you know what to do when you are here: when you’re here, shoot there; when you’re there, shoot here.”
In terms of pure work, City will be a step up from Dortmund. “Good question, but I don’t know yet,” he says when I ask about the differences between the Bundesliga and the Premier League. “I think it will be a bit more physical, higher tempo. And more pressure. It’s a really physical league and it’s going to be tough. But my body is ready and yeah, a good duel is always nice.”
This is where he mentions “a bit of pain”, being good. And he smiles.
“I always watched the Premier League and every game is living its own kind of story,” he says. “So many games to play, different atmospheres. From watching outside my whole life to finally be in it, I’m just really looking forward to it.”
Perhaps a spell of adjustment will be necessary, City getting used to fielding a main centre-forward again and Erling recognising that, for a while at least, the ball may not always come where and when he expects it.
“It’s a lot about chemistry,” he says. “I was two and a half years in Dortmund, so I knew really well the players there and it will come here as well, about passing the ball at the perfect timing. It’s something that has to come and will come. At the top level, it will come.
“I try to not adapt too much. Of course, there are some things you have to do differently because, in the end, you want the team to perform as best as possible, so if your coach tells you to do this, you do this — simple as that.
“I think it’s going to be good because when we get to know each other — it may take a while, we will have to see — the level of these players is so insane.”
I was never shy about telling my team-mates what I thought if they checked when they might have crossed or shot when they could have passed (to me). Erling will be the same. He laughs again. “Of course! If you don’t get the ball then you will tell them! We’ll see how long it takes but hopefully as quickly as possible.”
Is his record at Dortmund and Salzburg achievable at City? Is a goal a game realistic?
“I cannot talk too much about this,” he says, dead-batting it in a way that would have made the younger me proud. “I have to speak as little as possible and let other others do the speaking and try to settle in as quickly as possible and deliver as quick as possible.”
I return to the beginning of my run-up and try again: it is a shocking admission, I know, but when I was a player I always said I didn’t have any targets, but secretly I did; 20 goals was my starting point.
Erling chuckles. “I have exactly the same answer as you did! If I have, I will keep it for myself and I will not tell anyone.”
In the circumstances, I can’t really blame him…
He is reticent, too, about City’s beautiful obsession with the Champions League and whether he is the man to make the fantasy real. “Shit, I don’t want to say too much about this!” he says. “But yeah, I love the anthem and everything. It’s my favourite competition, a difficult competition. And, of course, my dream is to win the Champions League.”
He comes across as so composed. Confident but not arrogant. There is a stillness, somehow, in spite of his size, relaxed in his own skin and with where he is and what happens next. I love his goals — and talking to him makes me yearn for that fuzzy, indescribable feeling just one more time, please just once — but I also love his attitude and the sense that signing for City is not the ending of something, but a beginning. Double down, get to work, get better. Always get better.
“You know how it is pre-season,” he says, and I start to sweat just thinking about it. “It’s tough, it’s hard and then, after a couple of games, you get into it and your body feels better. I can’t wait to finally start. I’m looking forward to it.”
Me too, Erling. Me too. Now fill your boots, son.
(Top image: Sam Richardson)
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Erling Haaland interview – scoring goals, missing that chance and why it’s OK to feel pain
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