A match made in heaven…for the most part…
19-year-old forward Erling Braut Håland became one of the most in-demand players in world football after a meteoric rise to stardom at RB Salzburg. Attracted by his turn of pace, ability with both feet, and calmness on the ball attached to his 6’4″ frame, clubs from across Europe lined up to secure the Norwegian’s signature, with Salzburg surprisingly willing to listen to offers in the January window. Despite the high level of interest, the battle for Håland’s signature was seemingly down to three teams: Manchester United, Juventus, and RB Leipzig. Well, it was a three-horse race, and then it was not. Borussia Dortmund seemingly swooped in to snag Håland, activating his €20 million release clause and sealing the transfer just before the New Year.
Many did not view Borussia Dortmund as serious candidates for Håland’s signature, but in many ways, it is a match made in heaven for all involved. Dortmund signed a very promising young player to fill a position they need to fill, and Håland went to a club where he is going to get a chance to feature heavily with the first team.
Dortmund have been longing for a physical presence up top since the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left for Arsenal in January 2018. His replacement, Spanish striker Paco Alcacer, has been a good signing and has scored a fair amount of goals, especially at some key moments last season, but his stature and skill set meant he was less of the strong, supportive presence up top that Lewandowski and Aubameyang were. He also lacks the physical tools, namely pace, that enhanced Aubameyang’s technical skillset as a striker. His fitness issues have also resulted in him taking up a super sub role at times, which meant that Dortmund would start some matches with Reus, Götze, Brandt, or another player up top. Alcacer is also the only real recognized number nine at the club, so if he was unable to start, Dortmund’s only option was to play a midfielder or winger as the striker.
With Håland, Dortmund have a true physical presence up top that they can center their attack around. He is tall and strong, able to win knockdowns and headers from crosses, but he is also good on the ball and able to drop in and help in the build up play, as well as be in position to score. This, in turn, will benefit Dortmund’s plethora of attacking midfielders and wingers. Creative midfielders Sancho, Brandt, Reus, Hazard, and others will now have that physical presence dropping in to support them and create overloads to attack down, and they will now have a large target to aim their crosses at and a smart player who will be aware of where to be in order to score goals. This is in no way saying Alcacer was a bad player or did not also possess some of these skills, but, especially given his fitness limitations, Håland is just a better fit for this role in this team. Håland probably will not stay long-term at Dortmund, especially if he succeeds in the manner people think he will, but he will contribute immediately to a team needing a physical number nine and he offers a chance for significant profit in resale, considering Dortmund only paid €20 million for his services.
For Håland, this is the most ideal move he had available to him simply because this is the team that can offer him the most amount of playing time. Sure, maybe United and Juventus are “bigger” teams than Dortmund, whatever that means, but there is significant competition at the striker position in both teams. Juventus have two aging strikers in Ronaldo and Higuain, and they could do with bringing in a potential teenage star like Håland, but with the current form of Higuain and the stature of Ronaldo, there is no way that Håland would have featured outside of cup games. Manchester United’s only area of decent depth in quality is up front, with Daniel James, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood each having good or great seasons. Håland’s presence in the team with Greenwood, another teenage wunderkind, would also be a negative factor for both player and club, since only one of them can play. United would have to stymy the development of one teenage star in favor of another, which would not make financial sense for United and probably would not be a great environment for either player. The Leipzig link is a bit more interesting. Had he gone to Leipzig, he would obviously have stayed within the Red Bull system. While this has somewhat changed since the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann to the Leipzig bench, both Red Bull teams still play a fairly similar system, which operates around two strikers, with fairly similar tactical instructions for their strikers. Had he gone to Leipzig, Håland would have probably found himself taking up a similar role in the team as Danish forward Yussuf Poulsen. The obvious issue arises from Poulsen still being at Leipzig, seemingly wanting to stay for the near future. Even had Leipzig signed Håland and sold Poulsen, it still is not a sure thing. Much of Leipzig’s success as an attacking team stems from the strong chemistry and understanding they all have together, particularly between Poulsen, Emil Forsberg, and Timo Werner. If Håland comes in and they are not able to strike that partnership, then it all falls apart.
The most important thing for Håland at the minute is that he plays regular football, especially going into a Euros year in which Norway could be included. He will play a significant role at Dortmund. He will also feature in a team surrounded by midfield players that are very good at creating chances. He has also arrived at a club with a reputation of developing young players, particularly young strikers, under a manager, Lucien Favre, who is known for his ability to foster young talent and help them grow into first team stars. This will most likely not be his last transfer in his career, but it may end up being the most important, the one that is key for turning him from a prospect to a star. So often, young players take a step too far, rushing into a situation that they may not be ready for and stinting their development and careers. Håland has seemingly made the most responsible decision for this stage in his career.
Now, the reason why I put “for the most part” in the subheading is because there are some potential pitfalls to this move, as there are with basically any transfer. He is moving to a team that plays a different tactical style and formation from the Red Bull 4-2-2-2 that he succeeded under at Salzburg. He will now have the responsibility of acting as a lone striker and having to be the focus of both center backs. He seems to have a good tactical mindset, but this is an aspect of the game that is always at least somewhat weak for most young players. He will learn quite a bit about his role and position while at Dortmund, and he will undoubtedly have an adaptation period to endure before we see the best of him in a black and yellow shirt. Going along with this, he is also entering a situation where the pressure on him, and the team as a whole, is much more significant. He has signed for the second biggest club in Germany, who, despite their status, have not won a league title in seven years and are currently in the thick of the insanely close title race. Manager Lucien Favre was seemingly one or two bad results away from being sacked earlier in the season, and it is still very possible that he could be sacked before the end of next summer. The level of individual pressure and scrutiny, not just from Dortmund fans but from international fans and media, on him will be much higher than when he was in Austria. These issues are all fairly similar for all wunderkinds emerging in football, and these issues would have been present regardless of which club he chose and are in no way exclusive to Dortmund. It is, however, worth noting that they exist, because it is entirely possible that this move does not work out and Håland does not become the superstar that people expect him to become.
The risk is always there in transfers and in youth development in football. For every young prodigy that becomes a superstar, there are tens and hundreds more who do not. The key is being able to manage the risk and make the choice that either alleviates that risk or offers more pros than cons. In this case, Håland has made the correct choice. There are risks attached to a move to Dortmund, but the positives outweigh them. Dortmund is an ideal club for the Norwegian to take the next step in his career, and I am very excited to see how it plays out.