Europe's Most Wanted: Who Will Win the Race to Sign Erling Braut Haaland?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 5, 2019

Salzburg's Norwegian forward Erling Braut Haland celebrates after scoring the 1-1 during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match FC Red Bull Salzburg v SSC Napoli on 23 October 2019 in Salzburg, Austria. (Photo by STRINGER / various sources / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo by STRINGER/KRUGFOTO/AFP via Getty Images)
STRINGER/Getty Images

At a time when Europe's grandest clubs are forming a disorderly queue for his signature, it is intriguing to discover that Erling Haaland has already sported the colours of one of the teams reported to be pursuing him—namely Manchester City.

So will the Etihad Stadium be the 19-year-old Red Bull Salzburg sensation's next destination? Does Sergio Aguero need to worry about his starting place? Should City's shirt-printing department start stocking up on extra A's?

Well, maybe. But given that Haaland has not worn City sky blue—as far as anyone knows—since his early days in the youth ranks at formative club Bryne, it probably does not pay to read too much into it. Not least when you learn that he was also prone to wearing Leeds United tops and Nottingham Forest jerseys at around the same time.

"He had Leeds and City and Nottingham Forest shirts," recalls Alf Ingve Berntsen, Haaland's former youth coach at Norwegian side Bryne. "It's normal when you're growing up to have football shirts from the teams that your father played for."

Whereas Haaland's choice of replica shirt back then merely reflected where his father, Alf-Inge Haaland, had plied his trade during his own playing career, the question of whose colours the teenager will wear in the future is something that is holding all of European football in suspense.

If the affiliations of the scouts who are watching him are anything to go by, it could be the red of Manchester United, Arsenal or Bayern Munich, the stripes of Juventus, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona, the white of Real Madrid, the royal blue of Chelsea or, indeed, the sky blue of Manchester City. And that is to pick out only nine names from the long list of his supposed suitors, according to Fabrizio Romano of the Guardian.

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Salzburg's Norwegian forward Erling Braut Haland celebrates during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match FC Red Bull Salzburg v SSC Napoli on 23 October 2019 in Salzburg, Austria. (Photo by BARBARA GINDL / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo by BAR
BARBARA GINDL/Getty Images

Having scored eight goals in his first five Champions League appearances, including one against defending champions Liverpool and three against Serie A heavyweights Napoli, Haaland has brought his own professional future hurtling towards himself at a rate of knots. Berntsen, who coached him between the ages of six and 15, thinks the strapping blond goal-getter is ready for the big time already.

"If I was one of the top five clubs in Europe, I would have bought Erling immediately," he tells Bleacher Report. "That's my opinion. He's only 19, and he already scores in every game."

Playing time will inevitably be one of Haaland's chief concerns when the time comes for him and his family to decide on his next destination. He has started 14 of the 20 games that he has played in for Salzburg this season (for an astonishing return of 27 goals), and if he is to continue progressing at the same remarkable rate, he will need a club where he can maintain a similar rhythm.

"If the big clubs come in, they need to show that they have a plan for his development," says football journalist Odd Inge Aas from leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. "Because going to a club where he won't play that much, at this stage of his career, wouldn't be that smart."

Haaland, who is under contract until 2023, has already made it clear that he will not allow himself to be dazzled by any bright lights, having ignored interest from the likes of Juventus when he decided to move to Salzburg from Molde last season.

Jan Age Fjortoft became friends with Haaland's father while playing alongside him for the Norwegian national team in the 1990s, and he believes Haaland Sr.'s own successful playing career puts him in an ideal position to offer his son advice.

Salzburg's Erling Braut Haaland celebrates after winning the game between Belgian soccer team KRC Genk and Austrian club RB Salzburg, Wednesday 27 November 2019 in Genk, on the fifth day of the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, in the group E. BEL
LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/Getty Images

"He's not a typical over-eager father," Fjortoft tells Bleacher Report. "He's not one of those fathers who will yell and be very ambitious on his son's behalf. He's been there, and I think that's a good thing when you're a father who has played football—you don't need to live your dreams through your son."

Fjortoft also plays down the suggestion that the arrival on the scene of super-agent Mino Raiola—who is believed to be working with the Haalands in an advisory capacity—could prove a complicating factor in any transfer.

"Alfie Haaland knows that you need advice, that you need people to open doors," he says. "I still see that they've got everything under control."

If Haaland Jr. is to join one of the European elite, a starting berth is unlikely to be presented to him on a silver platter, not when Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski are among his potential rivals for a centre-forward role at the clubs with whom he has been linked.

But with such a uniquely multifaceted skill set—pace, strength, quick feet, aerial ability, clinical finishing—at the striker's disposal, Berntsen believes he will have no trouble adapting to the playing style of whichever club he elects to join.

"He can be a frontman, where you play the ball up to him and he holds on to it," says Berntsen. "Or he could play in more of a possession team. Because of Erling's different skills, he can adapt to different styles of football."

The most obvious move that Haaland could make would be to join Salzburg's sister club RB Leipzig. It has become a well-trodden path in recent years, with Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano and Konrad Laimer among the players to have walked it. It would offer Haaland the twin benefits of access to one of Europe's five major leagues and, in all probability, continued exposure to Champions League football.

However, Salzburg sporting director Christoph Freund recently spoke to Kicker and dismissed reports that Leipzig have first refusal on Haaland. With the striker expected to fetch in excess of €60 million (double the German club's current transfer record), it is questionable whether he would fit into their recruitment strategy in the first place.

Salzburg's Norwegian forward Erling Braut Haland celebrates scoring during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match Salzburg v Genk in Salzburg, Austria, on September 17, 2019. (Photo by KRUGFOTO / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT        (Photo credit sho
KRUGFOTO/Getty Images

So how about England? Born in Leeds and blessed with physical qualities that seem custom-made for English football, Haaland seems destined to play in the Premier League at some stage, with his father admitting in a recent TalkSport interview that the striker is "built for" the English game.

Fjortoft spent five years playing in England in the 1990s, for Swindon Town, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Barnsley, and he believes his young compatriot will grace the English top flight sooner rather than later.

"You just get a feeling because of his background," he says. "He was born in England, his dad played for Manchester City and Leeds United, and he loves English football. Things like that will go into your mind."

If it is to be England, Manchester United would appear to hold a clear advantage over their Premier League rivals. Haaland played under United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde. If the pair were to renew their collaboration, it would serve to fill the vacancy for a burly, goalscoring No. 9 that has existed in Solskjaer's squad since Romelu Lukaku left for Inter Milan during the summer.

Solskjaer has made it clear that he is prepared to put his faith in raw, young players, and The Athletic's Adam Crafton recently reported the United boss is keeping a close eye on his countryman.

"I know that Erling was very satisfied with Solskjaer at Molde," says Berntsen. "They had a very good relationship. What part that might play in any negotiations, I really don't know. But it has to be a good thing that they previously had a good relationship."

Such a move would be sure to prove highly popular in Norway, from where United have historically attracted significant levels of support. "If you could have a Norwegian goalscorer at Manchester United with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the manager, everything would be crazy here," predicts Aas.

While the identity of his next club remains unknown, Haaland's departure from Salzburg carries the same sense of inevitability as when he is bearing down on goal with the ball at his feet. Be it in January or at the end of the season, or even further down the line, it is now only a matter of time.

"I think that in 2020, and with no disrespect to Salzburg, this guy will play for one of the big clubs in Europe," says Fjortoft. "His next move will be a big one."

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