A couple of Wednesdays ago, with memories of Kylian Mbappe’s hat trick in 39 minutes still dancing in my head, I pondered the Erling Braut Haaland question and suggested on Twitter it would be “neat” if the pair developed some sort of redux version of the Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi duopoly over the next 15 years.
In addition to the usual white noise nonsense that any mention of the latter pair will bring — “It’s not a real rivalry because Cristiano/Messi is so much better than Cristiano/Messi” — plenty raised the following, very legitimate, query.
“Mbappe has nearly 200 senior appearances which is roughly three times that of Haaland. He has three full seasons in Ligue 1 under his belt, whereas Haaland has thus far played in Norway and Austria. He has 33 caps and has won a World Cup as a protagonist. Haaland has played for Norway twice. Mbappe is 20 months older so Haaland can catch up, sure, but why would you even suggest that the pair belong in the same conversation?”
Perhaps one of the reasons is that Haaland himself raised the issue.
Back in January, he was asked by Norwegian daily Verdens Gang about his development. “Maybe it has gone fast if you compare me with a Norwegian 18-year-old in the fourth tier, but not if you compare me to Mbappe … then it’s going very slow,” he said.
Stop and think about it for a moment. What kind of kid that age, fresh off a move to Salzburg — not Real Madrid, but Salzburg, who for all the fizzy drink hype of its sponsor is still a little bro in the Taurine Empire — compares himself to Mbappe, a world champion and the second most expensive player in the history of the universe? This is the sort of stuff Zlatan Ibrahimovic might say. (It’s not a coincidence that Haaland has no qualms about comparing himself to the Big Swede either: “He’s a fellow Scandinavian, someone will have to take over from him one day.” Or Muhammad Ali. Or Kid Rock: “They call me cocky and I say what?!? It ain’t bragging if you back it up!”
Has he backed it up? And are these two the next iteration of Messi vs. Ronaldo?
Haaland made five appearances (four of them as a substitute) for Salzburg last season as he settled into an entirely new culture, scoring one goal. He scored 11 goals in five games for the Norwegian Under-20 team, although nine of them came in a single game against Honduras that his team won 12-0. (Still, that tells you something: what kind of guy runs up the score like that in a meaningless game? Either a flat-track bully or a striker who is singularly obsessed with scoring.)
Which brings us to this season. He’s scored 20 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions, including six in the Champions League where he’s currently the top scorer. This is where the knee-jerk gang — “it’s only Norway/Austria” — come in. OK, sure. It was only Austria when Sadio Mane played there too, and he turned out fine.
More to the point, those six Champions League goals weigh heavily: they came against Genk, Napoli and Liverpool. (He had the flu at Anfield and only played a half). Or, from a different perspective, he has scored three goals in three halves of football against Kalidou Koulibaly and Virgil Van Dijk.
How’s that for a solid case?
Frank Leboeuf heaps praise on Kylian Mbappe for his stellar UCL performance for PSG off the bench.
Where was Mbappe at his age, three months removed from his 19 birthday? Well ahead, actually. He had notched 42 goals in 92 top-flight appearances for Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. He led France to the U19 Euros, and he’d scored six Champions League goals. That said, it’s worth remembering that numbers are just part of it. At that same age, Ronaldo had scored all of six goals for Sporting and Manchester United; he’d go on to notch another 600. Lionel Messi had 12 for Barcelona by that age; he would also go on to score a whole lot more.
Mbappe is undoubtedly further along than Haaland at this stage, but they’re still setting up for that kind of head-to-head comparison. Conversely, we can all come up with prolific youngsters who didn’t quite sustain the same level of excellence throughout their careers: think Michael Owen or Raul, outstanding footballers who, for different reasons and in different settings, slowed down and never achieved Messi/Ronaldo levels of production well into their 30s. (While we’re at it, Mbappe may not either: most of his story is yet to be written too).
The eye test matters too and it tells you that Haaland is an oversized center-forward who is strong as an ox, yet also technically sound and boasting a highly refined sense of space and movement. That last one matters on a team like Salzburg with its obsessive pressing, but it also matters because it tells you that this is a kid who has spent a long time thinking about the game. Teenage Zlatan at Ajax was undeniably a more gifted player, but he was also an individualist who indulged his freelance riffs. Teenage Haaland at Salzburg is keenly aware of his role in the band and how, if anything, playing in harmony makes his solos sound even better. Throw in his obsessive training regimen, hunger and personality and the foundations are all there.
We can only go by what we’ve seen so far. Haaland looks like a special talent, but so did many other young strikers before him. It’s only now, with hindsight, that we trot out flaws about why they never made it. Usually it’s one or more of the following: weak character, over-reliance on athleticism, personal issues off the pitch, lack of continuing technical and tactical development and, of course, injuries. That’s the bad part. The unwritten part. What’s coming down the road. Haaland, so to speak, was born with a silver spoon: a whole collection of them in fact. He has the tools to control his own future, but only to a point.
In that sense, he’s a 19-year-old kid who wonders what the next two decades will bring. However bright the future may seem, however strong his personality and work ethic, however impressive his maker made him, he’s like the arrow flying forth from the archer’s bow. The aim is accurate and the arrowhead strong and straight, but there is so much that can knock him, and Mbappe, off course.
So let’s just enjoy it while it lasts — and may it last until they hang up their boots for the last time.
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