Erling Braut Håland: A complete analytical breakdown of why he is so special

Last year, a young Norwegian took the football world by storm. After fantastic performances with the Norwegian youth teams, he made his first impression in the professional football sphere. And boy did he perform. First at Salzburg, later that season in Dortmund who paid 20 million € last winter for the striker. His name, you might have guessed it, Erling Haaland. In 40 games he scored 44 times and assisted for 10 goals. Not only in Austria but also in the German Bundesliga Haaland needed little time to adjust and scored and incredible seven goals in his first three games for Borussia Dortmund. But it was in the Champions League where he showed that he is special. Haaland scored ten goals in only eight matches. Those games were not played against small clubs but the likes of Paris St. Germain and, back-then, the defending champion Liverpool FC.

The way Haaland scores his goals is in particular impressive due to his young age. Haaland reads the defence well, makes great movements off the ball to confuse the defence and start in the open space. His great acceleration and speed along with his precise shooting make Haaland incredible hard to stop. Especially, in the ball dominant Dortmund squad, the Norwegian is the player who offers depth by sprinting behind the last defensive line. Here, he benefits of the gravity created by players like Sancho, Reus or Reyna. Due to their dribblings, defenders have to focus on what happens close to the ball at full speed. Haaland intelligently uses the lack of attention on him by attacking the space opened by a defender who has to press the ball carrier.

Let’s quickly go through the way Haaland behaves during the attacking phase and what other strikers can learn from him. We are going to be looking at the two most important aspects for a number ‘9’: Movement & Finishing

By Tobias Hahn (https://twitter.com/hahn97_t)

Hide outside of the field of view of the defender

One of the key components of Haaland’s offensive game is his positioning. As I mention regularly, it is crucial for a striker to create advantageous situations for oneself by being positioned in such a way that the defender can’t observe the ball and oneself simultaneously. The so-called blind side is the area which the defender can hardly observe without completely turning around. Haaland constantly uses this advantage in order to be the player who acts rather than reacts to what the defence gives him.

No matter if it is in the box or in front of it, Haaland constantly hides on the blind side often between the centre-backs or slightly behind one of them depending on the position of the ball and the available space.

Once the defender does only face the ball, Haaland accelerates and quickly attacks the open space to get his body between the defender and the ball. Especially, around the box, Haaland is great in attacking the space between centre-back and fullback to then finish with the first or second touch. Here, his favourite spot seems to be on the left side of the penalty spot in the box where he can finish strong with his left foot in either both corners of the goal leaving the goalkeeper clueless where the shot might go.

Challenging the defender

The way Haaland moves off-ball on the blind-sides deserves particular attention. You might think he has a variety of moves to confuse the defenders, well, you’re wrong. Haaland’s repertoire on movements is quite small, in fact, he has only one move giving him two options. However, he reads the game so well that this one move is enough for him to get in great attacking positions while still being hard to defend.

The video below shows the movement particularly well. Haaland uses a curved run to free himself up and hide behind the defender. By moving away from the defender in another field of vision, he hides on the blind side, draws the defender slightly towards him and then accelerates to attack the space he created for himself.

The defender his drawn towards him because he fears the ball could be played directly to Haaland who beats the defenders by sprinting through the space between them. Furthermore, the defender wants to have contact to the Norwegian in order to defend him better. However, the defender opens space for Haaland who then can accelerate and attack the open space.

This simple curved run always follows the same principle, open space to attack and finish with the first touch. Depending on the situation, the outcome can be different. In fact, three different versions exist in regard to the position of the ball and the opponent.

Once Haaland is near the ball and close to both centre-backs, he performs the run we’ve seen above. His idea is quite simple. Open the space next to one of the centre-backs to score from the near post. Here, Haaland prefers the left side in order to score with his left foot. That’s why one can observe the movement above more regularly when Dortmund attacks through their strong left side with Sancho or through the halfspace. By sprinting into the space on the left of the goal, Haaland brings himself in perfect scoring position. Even thought the angle might be suboptimal, Haalands elite finishing allows him to still be effective. Compared to other strikers, Haaland can not only score through a light shoot in the right bottom corner but also through a powerful strike in the left top corner, as one can see in his second goal against Freiburg. Other strikers might have sprinted vertically in order to immediately receive the throughball and then cross it in. Haaland, however, again performs the blind side run, making it incredible hard for the defender to stop the ball and close the gap behind him. Haaland realizes that Lienhardt tries to stop the ball, thus he accelerates and attacks the space behind. In the end, the shoot is simply worldclass.

Even though the other scenarios involve the same movement by Haaland, they do rarely appear in the open field but rather in the box. As a striker, Haaland often finds himself between the two centre-backs in the centre, while his skilled teammates try to overcome the compact defence by combining through tight spaces. Here, Haaland again follows the principle of creating space for himself. For instance, when Dortmund is set to cross, Haaland would move away from the ballnear centre-back towards the ballfar one. Here, the Norwegian pays attention to his overall position and the angle towards the goal. His main objective is to attack the near post as quickly as possible, hence he has to start his run from a more central position in order to be able to score.

His movement towards the ballfar centre-back has exactly that effect. The angle is perfect and the ballfar centre-backs sees his advantage in defending crosses flow away. Usually, he would be the one following the striker to the near post. When he reads the situation well, he would be able to pressure and deny the easy scoring option for the striker. Due to the same position of Haaland, the striker is now in the driver seat and will always be one step ahead of the defender.

This movement resembles the situation we’ve discussed above. Haaland would behave similar once enough space behind the last line would be available. Contrary to his behaviour in the box, he would perform the run slightly different in order to get a better scoring position.

In case space is available behind the defensive line closer to the far post, Haaland moves in that space. Especially, in counter-attacking situation where the fullback moved higher and is yet late to get back in the defensive chain, Haaland aims on attacking those spaces. In situations like that he would use a movement away from the defenders.

Once again, the blind side plays a particular role, this time however, no defender can see him and the ball simultaneously. It is incredible how the striker always shows his teammates where he wants the ball while maintaining the perfect angle to the defender. His acceleration and the sudden change of rhythm and speed make him so dangerous in those scenes.

By Varun Madhav (https://twitter.com/theonenil)

While we had an interesting look at how Haaland’s movement, spatial awareness and intelligence have been integral in getting him into threatening positions, there is no doubt that the Norweigan is up there among the best shooters in football today as well.

Quantity & Quality of Shooting

Football has become more and more competitive by the day with teams of every size and shape giving importance to tactical intelligence and game management. Owing to this, there are games when even the best attacking systems struggle to create a truck-load of chances for the striker to pick and choose the ones he would finish. This is the most obvious reason why a striker being efficient or clinical is a necessity than a luxury these days.

The simplest way to look at how efficient or clinical a striker has been; Quantity and Quality of shots are probably the two most important determinants.

Quantity

There are teams which like to shoot from ambitious areas of the pitch if their striker has a powerful, accurate shot while there are others, who like to keep the ball and finish a possession spell only when a clear-cut chance has been created. So generally, the quantity of shots taken by a striker is largely dependent on the tactical system and the outlay of the team rather than it being an individual choice. While quantity might be affected by the system that the striker is part of, the quality is generated absolutely from his own ability.

First let us have a look at the quantity of shots from a basic perspective, for strikers in Europe’s top-five leagues in the 2019–20 season in comparison to Erling Haaland (post his move to Borussia Dortmund)

This is probably the simplest but not the most effective way to measure a striker’s quantity vs quality metric. Yet I choose not to ignore this methodology to have an understanding of the overall picture. As you can see, we have the average shots per game and average shots on-target per game of Erling Haaland in comparison to all strikers in Europe’s top-five leagues with 10 goals or more in the 2019–20 season.

The Norweigan has just 0.12 shots per game lesser on an average than other strikers in the top-five leagues, a meagre difference (4%) that can be ignored and concluded that in general, the shots taken are at a similar level. But when you look at the shots-on-target per game, that’s where the real difference is. While strikers in the top-five leagues averaged 1.28 shots on-target, Haaland averages 1.69 shots on-target. This constitutes to Haaland having an incremental 0.41 shots on-target per game, which is 30% more than the average striker with 10+ goals in the top-five leagues. So it is safe to say that even from a basic perspective, it is pretty obvious that Haaland’s shots are noticeably more accurate than the average striker in Europe.

The point to be noted here is the total number of shots taken by Haaland is 78 out of which, 48 have been on target. This means that the Dortmund forward has managed to 61% of his shots on target. Moreover, out of his 48 shots, he has managed to net 29 goals. This means that 60% of his shots on-target have been converted to goals. Most strikers wouldn’t have this level of conversion. To give you some context, let us take one of the highest scoring forwards in football today: Robert Lewandowski. He has managed to net about 49 goals but he had to take 102 shots for it, a conversion rate of less than 50%

Quality:

While we had a look at the shot-numbers in terms of quantity, here is a look at the other facet of shooting; Quality. Since quality of shots allows us to go a bit more in detail, here is a graph of shots-on-target % vs Goals — xG per 90 minutes.

There are many determinants that we can play around with in order to measure the quality of shooting. Something as simple as the shots-on-target % gives you an idea of how many shots does a striker need to get one shot on-target, while the latest xG algorithms have also given birth to several other ways of measuring the finishing quality. In the graph above, I have combined both of these elements where in shots on-target % is compared against the rate at which the striker has underperformed/ overperformed his xG per 90 minutes. (Per 90 is to ensure number of games don’t impact)

As you can see, the top-right quadrant of the graph has strikers who have a high number of shots on-target % and also outperformed their xG, which means they are not only accurate shooters but clinical finishers as well.

The top-left quadrant has strikers who have outperformed their xG but not a healthy ratio in terms of shots on-target %. In other words, these strikers are capable of converting goals from difficult chances but not necessarily accurate in terms of shooting and could consider improving that.

The bottom-right quadrant has strikers who have a good ratio in terms of shots on-target % but have underperformed their xG. In other words, these strikers manage to get their shots on-target but are not necessarily clinical in their finishing. While it might not be a hard-and-fast rule, a possible interpretation could be that these strikers need to improve in terms of placement, power and shot-selection as their clinicality is not high despite having significant number of shots on-target

The bottom-left quadrant has strikers who neither have a good ratio in shots on-target % nor outperformed their xG, which means that they need to work a lot on both their shot accuracy as well as clinicality.

Erling Haaland has been clearly ahead of most strikers both in terms of shots on-target % (over 55% of shots on-target) as well as outperforming his xG (0.40 goals more than xG per 90), making him one of the most accurate shooters and clinical finishers in Europe’s Top-Five Leagues.

Here, we have categorized Haaland’s 27 goals into three main types of finishes: Placement, Power, Tap-in which came from movement or positioning. To avoid penalty kicks having an impact on the open-play goals, they have been mentioned separately. Haaland has taken only 1 penalty kick for Borussia Dortmund since his arrival, which is represented by the 4%.

41% (11/27) of his goals came as a result of proper placement, 29% (8/27) of his goals were owing to sheer power and 26% (7/27) of his goals were just a matter of pushing the ball into the net after an intelligent run or positioning.

Here’s a graphical representation of Haaland’s goals categorized by area on the pitch. There are about 27 goals which have been taken into account, considering his arrival at Borussia Dortmund as the starting point. Goals scored in all major competitions such as Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League, DFL SuperCup (vs Bayern) and even the UEFA Nations League (for Norway) have been taken into consideration.

This is for a general understanding about which area of the pitch does Haaland get his goals from and as the graph suggests, 19 goals come from inside the penalty area, 6 goals from inside the 6-yard box and just 2 from outside the box.

And here’s a graphical representation of Haaland’s goals categorized by areas in the goal aimed at. Similar to the above graph, here also we consider the 27 goals scored in top-flight competitions since arriving at Borussia Dortmund, including goals for the Norway National team.

The target symbols denote the ball’s point of entry into goal for the 27 goals with the size of the target symbol being directly proportional to the difficulty (xG of that chance). So, a bigger target symbol means that it was a more difficult chance to finish while a smaller target symbol means an easier chance. However, when the player in question is Erling Haaland, there are hardly any easy chances with majority of the goals being jaw-dropping finishes, leaving no chance for the goal-keeper.

19 of Haaland’s 27 goals have found the net from the top or bottom corners of the goal. While the focus on aiming for the corners is a fair reasoning as to why the Norweigan’s finishing is of such high quality, it is also interesting categorize the goals as top-half of the goal vs bottom-half of the goal.

Haaland has 9 goals out of the 29, which have been scored in the top half of goal which is over 30%. It is definitely not normal for a striker to have over 30% of his goals scored at the height of a goal-keeper’s chest, especially when he has just 2 goals from outside the box. The most common occurrence of the ball gaining that kind of a height is when they are shot from long-range as the ball has ample time for the upward trajectory to take place.

However in the case of Haaland, there seems to be a unique technique that gives the ball an upward, rising trajectory despite the location of the shot not being too far away from goal. Is it possible to shoot the ball with such perfection that it doesn’t go flying above the crossbar and also doesn’t reach the goal-keeper at a comfortable waist-height which would be an easy stop?

Haaland’s goal vs PSG in the 2019–20 UEFA Champions League Round-of-16 Stage
Haaland’s goal vs Lazio in the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League Group Stage

There are certain technical differences between the traditional driven shot from long-range and the whip-like shot of Haaland. First let us have a look at an example of a perfect traditional driven shot from long-range

As you can see, Van Bronckhorst’s goal against Uruguay in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals is surely up there among the perfect examples of how to pull the trigger from long-range. There are a few key-points in terms of its execution:

Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s goal vs Uruguay in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals

A strong planted-foot pointing towards the direction of shot, chest leaning over the ball, a big back-lift of the shooting leg, ankle locked, connecting the ball in the lower-middle area, a follow-through which sees the shooting leg go all the way up and then finally the shot-taker landing on the same leg with which he shot.

While this is generally the preferred technique to take a powerful shot from long-range, the technique used by Haaland in his shots to generate power is unique, if not completely new. The Norweigan’s technique has no follow-through whatsoever and he simply puts the shooting-foot abruptly on the ground upon shooting the ball. The idea is to hit the ball in the middle-to-lower area like a whip with his instep-lace as all the power needed to whip the ball would come from a huge back-lift.

Haaland has scored numerous goals using this technique with the second goal against PSG in the UEFA Champions League Round-of-16, 1st leg at Dortmund being the most famous one:

Here we can clearly see how Haaland’s left-foot after the shot has no follow-through and just gets planted firmly to the ground
Yet another example: Haaland’s goal vs Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga last season with no follow-through but the goal going above the keeper’s waist

In short, the technique is nothing but an extremely powerful back-spin which is created owing to the foot meeting the lower portion of the ball. This brings the ball off-the-ground, giving it an upward trajectory and taking it towards the roof of goal at full speed. This upward trajectory as the ball enters goal is a major reason why it is difficult for goal-keepers to stop. When the keeper is in his regular stance ready for a shot, he is on his toes with knees slightly bent. So right from the starting position, the keeper is already lagging behind in terms of height. As the shot is angled with power towards the roof of goal, it is impossible for the goalkeeper to get over the ball, especially if he was in anticipation of a low-driven shot. So a keeper’s best bet would be to get under the ball and increase its height to the extent that it goes over the crossbar and that is indeed a challenge.

I even had a discussion with a goal-keeping coach I know, regarding shots of this kind and here is what he had to say:

“Since it is relatively rare compared to the “normal shots”, it’s much harder as your brain isn’t wired to understand motion (uprising trajectory) this way. A goal-keeper practices 100 shots, 99 are moving top-to-down even if ever so slightly.

So you take a split second to read the shot, then your brain has to process the abnormal movement and that delay can be all the difference between a goal & a save, because uprising shots are always hit with power. So definitely the power and the unusual movement of the ball is a killer combo”


Atleast as far as I have seen, a shot of this kind is pretty rare and you can find them only in the playbook of footballers with supreme shooting technique like Steven Gerrard or Kevin de Bruyne. I have mentioned these two names as I distinctly remember seeing them score some bangers with this technique.

Kevin De Bruyne scored for Wolfsburg using the same technique: Huge Backlift, No follow-through, uprising trajectory with full power
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool in the 2004–05 UEFA Champions League at the qualifiers stage using the same technique

As we could see, Erling Haaland follows a few simple principles to score his goal. Mainly the creation of space and the hiding on the blind side of the defender. The precision with which Haaland positions and performs his runs as well as the quick acceleration and the great finishing is the secret of his success. Overall, he is a great off-ball striker and simply knows when and where to attack, however, it is not rocket science. The Norwegian simply executes the fundamental principles of a striker nearly to perfection. To remember that Erling Haaland is almost a complete striker who can trouble any defender with his movement, physique, link-up, sharp-shooting, all at the age of 20 is simply mind-blowing. In fact, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to even say that he is already up there as one of the best strikers in the World.

What does a team need to win a football game? 1–0! How does the team do it? Well you can find out right here in, what will be soon, a library of tactics.

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