It wasn’t exactly LeBron James and “Decision”. After all, Erling Braut Haaland he was not a free agent, he was not broadcast on television, there was no story of “betrayal from his hometown” and there were many whispers that the announcement was inevitable because various suitors dropped out of the race. But it is not far.
Haaland didn’t say – or at least hasn’t said since Tuesday night – that I would “take my talents to the Etihad and join Manchester City … I feel it will give me the best chance of winning and winning for years to come.” But he and his entourage probably meant it.
This is a 21-year-old male child and with him Kylian Mbappehe is one of the two most popular traits in the global game. Confirmation arrived on Tuesday that he has joined forces with Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, one of the best (and best-equipped) clubs of recent seasons, and hot favorites to win a fourth Premier League title in five years.
What unites the player and the club, apart from the fact that they are close to the gold standard in what they do, is planning.
– Man City agreed on a contract to sign Dortmund Haaland
– The numbers that made Haaland the most wanted striker
– Dortmund completed the signing of Adeyemi, a replacement for Haaland
After playing a second fiddle for much of their history against rivals Manchester City and winning two Premier League titles in the early years under Emirates over with a scattered high-spending approach, they turned to a long-term project and focused on Guardiola, the architect of the two crowns Champions League while he was in Barcelona and the most desirable coach in the game at the time, as a coach who would take them further.
Guardiola was at Bayern at the time, but the red carpet was laid for him. They made no secret of wanting to learn from Barcelona’s model, all the way to organizing their youth academies on the same ideas and securing former Barcelona leaders such as Ferran Soriano (now the club’s chief executive) and Txiki Begiristain (City’s sporting director). Everything was ready for the day he was ready for and when he finally did, in the summer of 2016, he arrived in an environment that was more famous than it could otherwise be.
Haaland’s career is also carefully planned. Part of that goes to his father, Alfie, a former Norwegian international who spent three seasons at City from 2000 to 2003. Being the son of a former professional means having access to networks and knowledge beyond the average Joe, and Haaland took advantage of it all.
He started at his local club Bryne, and at the age of 16, after being visited and scouted by half of the biggest European teams, he stayed in his homeland, opting for Molde. Eighteen months later, just after turning 18, he moved to FC Salzburg in Austria, turning down more lucrative opportunities at major clubs. Why Salzburg? Because they were part of the Red Bull group of clubs and were known not only for giving young people time to play, but also for playing modern, fast and pressing football. They were the ideal “final school” and just as importantly, they agreed to put a relatively low exemption clause (€ 20 million / $ 21 million) in his contract. If young Erling excelled above that fee, he wanted to make sure he could move on.
Which is exactly what happened. He scored 28 goals in 22 games in the first half of the 2019-20 season, and that January he made his next step in the food chain. Since the fee of 20 million euros was less than a third of its market value at the time, he could have chosen his destination quite a bit, and he chose Borussia Dortmund: a bigger club and a bigger challenge, but the same commitment to young people. And again, they agreed on a release clause – 60 million euros, as it turned out – which is far below what he would otherwise get on the free market.
So while Haaland wasn’t technically a free agent, having such a low exemption clause relative to your potential open market transfer fee (which is comfortable in the 180 million euro range) meant roughly the same thing. He – along with his father and his late agent, Mina Raiol – had control. They could name their price and, most importantly, their destination.
This careful planning is not just about his father and agent being smart in planning his journey. By all accounts, Haaland is a pure, hard-working kid, with a softer, new-age side (yoga and meditation). He avoids controversy, respects the hierarchy and despite not being open in the media, still manages to gather 15 million followers on Instagram with posts such as these back Home in Norway. Since childhood he has lived and breathed the game at the highest level, and it shows.
On the surface, it fits perfectly. Manchester City have not had a dominant central striker since 2018, before injuries accelerated Sergio Aguero’s downfall. They still have a lot of goals in mind, but mostly without a professional center forward. They chased the English striker last summer Harry Kane, but were deterred by Tottenham’s $ 160 million estimate. Haaland, who is seven years younger than Kane and is probably already at his level, is a parallel deal.
This is also not the case with a naive young superstar with stars (and money signs) in his eyes. Haaland and his advisers know exactly what they are getting into with City. They know the way Guardiola wants his teams to play, the way he favors an extra dog, the way he values working speed along with quality, the way an individual is subordinate to the team.
As tempting as it may be to draw comparisons with the great failed experiment of 2009 – the last time Guardiola bet on an oversized Scandinavian center forward, under the name Zlatan Ibrahimovic – They are wrong. Guardiola, who was in Barcelona at the time, had just won his first Champions League and the club bought the top Swedish international for $ 55 million plus the rights to Samuel Eto’o, a total package worth more than $ 80 million. It didn’t work out because Ibrahimović clashed with Guardiola early and often, he left after only one season. That has led to some, recently Patrice Evra, suggesting Guardiola can’t deal with the oversized personalities that are in your face and that he, and not just any single player, had to be a star.
This is a very misinterpretation of the situation, then and now. First of all, Ibrahimović is beautiful, open and bigger than life to the extent that Haaland will never be. Secondly, he was 27 years old and at that time he was fully formed as a professional, while Haaland is still developing (which is frightening, considering how good he is already). Also, Guardiola today is not the 2009 Guardiola. He also grew up, gained life experience and worked successfully with many great personalities at Bayern Munich (Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuerto mention just two).
On the ground, the fit seems natural. Haaland is a great, central striker, but he is also a fast and excellent ball passer. He has vision and working speed, two qualities that Guardiola seems to value above all else. As for personality, he is hungry, probably hungrier than Ibrahimovic (who has already won championship titles in three different clubs). The city closet is full of trophies; Haaland’s contains only the German Cup 2020-21 and the title he won in his first six months in Salzburg, when he was 18 and made only two league appearances. Hunger and motivation will not be a problem.
Ultimately, City can celebrate: they won the Haaland sweepstakes. Critics will say that Real Madrid are putting their chips in Mbappe’s basket when it comes to their next big signature, that Barcelona is close to illiquidity (and Juventus is only in a slightly better boat), that Chelsea is under government sanctions, that Liverpool is busy trying to extend own forward (Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah) instead of thinking about signing new ones, that Bayern Munich has its own strict salary structure … but let them talk.
The fact is, everyone wanted Haaland, and City got him. The fact that he chose them as much as they chose him (if not more) hints very well.
They both go into this with their eyes wide open. Now, the rest is up to Pep and Erling.