Uh Oh, Erling Haaland Might’ve Learned How to Play Soccer

He's always scored goals, but what if he can head, pass, and dribble now, too?

Run fast, see ball, kick ball, score goals -- a lot of goals, more goals than just about anyone.

Since the start of 2020, Erling Haaland has scored 44 non-penalty goals in the German Bundesliga. Across Europe’s top leagues, the only player to score more over that span is Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski with 51. No one else has broken 40, and that’s despite the Bundesliga schedule featuring four fewer games every season than leagues in Spain, Italy, England, and France do. Per minute, per game, per season, per year: Haaland and Lewandowski are the best goal-scorers in the world.

The big difference? Haaland still can’t grow a beard, and Lewandowski is in his 12th Bundesliga season. A little over two years ago, Haaland was still playing in the under-20 World Cup in Poland. We really should’ve known, huh?

Since then, he’s turned all of his opponents, regardless of age or pedigree or nationality, into Honduran teenagers. In Austria, he scored 16 non-penalty goals in 16 league games for Red Bull Salzburg, averaging out to 1.74 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. He moved to Dortmund in January of 2020, and the goal-scoring rate only dropped off a tiny bit, down to a measly 1.29 per 90 minutes. For reference: 1.29 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes? That’s Lionel Messi’s career goal-scoring rate. Erling Haaland turned 21 in July.

It was all there against Honduras. This person was already an unstoppable goal-scoring machine -- even if he only knew one way to do it. Sprint into the center of the box, smash the ball as hard as you can, celebrate, and do it all again. As John Muller wrote about last year, most of Haaland’s goals for Dortmund came from vertical runs to the left side of the penalty spot. Despite being 6-foot-3 and scoring nine goals against Honduras, none of those came with his head. And before this season, just two of his 38 non-penalty goals in the Bundesliga came from headers.

Well, we’re six games into this season, and he’s already scored twice with head. Uh oh.

In his first year and half with Dortmund, Haaland attempted 9.8 percent of his shots with his head. The average center forward across Europe’s top leagues was attempting 21.4 percent of his shots with his head. In one way, this points to the efficiency that has made Haaland so effective. Over this stretch, center forwards converted headed shots 12.3 percent of the time, compared to 14.7 percent of the time with their feet. Move that to penalty-area shots only, and the header percentage remains the same, while the foot-shot conversion rate jumps up to 18.7 percent. And remember, that’s what Haaland does: runs into the box and shoots the ball. Prior to this season, 92.7 percent of his shots came from inside the box, compared to 77.9 percent for the average center forward across Europe.

Being in the box and using your feet both greatly increase the likelihood that a given shot becomes a goal, and Haaland’s shots were tilted, extremely, in both directions. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, there’s a lot right with it. But it still suggested that there might be more goals to be found somewhere. 

Of course, that wouldn’t happen if the balance shifted in the wrong direction. If Haaland started attempting more headers at the expense of some of these shots with his feet inside the box, then he’d likely start scoring fewer goals. The percentage of his shots that were headers could increase, but he’d also have to increase the overall number of shots he was taking in order for that to be worth it. Dortmund were the least cross-happy team in the Bundesliga last season -- just 10.3 percent of their final-third passes were crosses -- but not every possession can turn into a cut back to the top of the six-yard box. Sometimes you just have to settle for less. If Haaland and Dortmund could turn an extra possession or two per game into a headed chance in the box, they’d score more goals.

And through five matches and 450 more minutes, that’s exactly what’s happened. Haaland is taking five shots per game, compared to 3.32 last year. Over his first two seasons, he attempted 12 headed shots -- total. This season, he’s already attempted seven. Now, he’s still not what I would call a “good” header of the ball. His form is terrible; he kind of just jumps into the ball, rather than catching it at the height of his jump and snapping his head toward the ball. He looked like a giant child against Union Berlin over the weekend — closing his eyes, hoping for the best — and he still scored anyway:

Prior to this season, Haaland had won about 48 percent of the balls he contested in the air, which certainly feels low for someone of his size and strength and leaping ability. To me, that seems like a lack of skill more than anything: he just simply doesn’t really know what to do when the ball is in the air, even though he’s got all the tools to figure it out. Through five games this year, he’s won 65 percent of the balls he’s contested in the air. Maybe he is starting to figure it out.

And that’s the frightening thing about Haaland: he’s still figuring all of this out. He’s scored more goals than anyone other than Robert Lewandowski without really, you know, understanding how to play soccer. He’s bullied his opponents off the field with a combination of brute force and impeccable timing, but that was it. This year, there are signs that he’s developing all the other skills, too. He’s completing double the number of progressive passes and passes into the penalty area as he was last season. He’s registered 3.6 shot-creating actions per 90, compared to 2.3 last season, which suggests he’s more involved in dangerous build-up play. He’s also carrying the ball upfield more often and leading all Bundesliga players in touches in the penalty area. It’s not only heading, and the goal-scoring -- currently 2.0 non-penalty per 90 --  is as good as it’s ever been, too.

The dude was already one of the two best goal-scorers in the world. But if his start to this season is any indication, it won’t be long until Erling Haaland is one of the two or three best soccer players in the world -- if he’s not there already.