Erling Haaland’s transfer dominos: How the once-in-a-generation scorer is primed to shake up the summer market

Even when he was not on the market, Erling Haaland’s shadow loomed large over proceedings in the January window. His presence could be felt not so much in the business done but in the absence of much conjecture, let alone concrete interest from those looking to position themselves for the transfer race of a generation this month.

Of course the biggest and best tend not to make radical investments at midseason but there tend to be whispers, suggestions of business that may be brought forward. Little if any emerged last month. 

It is as if Europe were holding their breath, doing nothing that might disturb the pursuit of Haaland.

It is a deal worth waiting for. Haaland’s contract with Borussia Dortmund includes a release clause that becomes active this summer, allowing him to leave for any club that offers €75 million ($84M). For his current club, that represents an almighty profit on the fee they paid Red Bull Salzburg for the Norwegian international’s services just over two years ago. For his suitors, it is a bargain with scarce parallels even if his salary is expected to be in excess of $500,000-a-week.

Remove the clause in his contract and Haaland would command at least twice that fee. Here is a player who averages more than a goal a game at Dortmund, who has set scoring records in the Champions League and is already ranked among the best in the world by his peers.

At 21, whichever club succeeds in securing his services might reasonably expect a decade of top-tier goalscoring. They might imagine that there are heights yet unreached by a player who insists he can “improve on everything.” Haaland — son of former Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf Inge — tracks Jamie Vardy to perfect his runs in behind, studies Robin van Persie’s technical excellence, all to make himself the best of the best.

He is not far off that already. At the highest of levels, he has excelled for a sustained period. Over the past three seasons of Champions League football, only one player (Robert Lewandowski) has outscored Haaland, who has 23 goals in 19 games. Per 90 minutes, the 21-year-old ranks in Europe’s top five in almost every category by which a striker might be judged: Goals, expected goals, shooting goals added, proportion of shots on target. He wins his aerial duels and last season’s European knockout games also suggest a player who understands his gravity can be used to create chances for others.

Who knows how often a player like this will come on the open market? One might point to Kylian Mbappe, but it has long since been apparent that it is either a free transfer to Real Madrid or a new contract at Paris Saint-Germain for the France international. With Haaland, there are more clubs who at least want to talk.

It is perhaps the nearest the European soccer game has got to the great Kevin Durant sweepstakes of 2016, a moment where one of the best basketball players on earth was suddenly available to almost any team (at least theoretically). A generational talent, one who may redefine what is possible for a player of his size and shape in this sport, could hold court in the Hamptons. Let the great and good come to him, convince him that they can provide an environment in which he can reach his transcendent best.

Already, the parallels between Durant and Haaland are there. Almost as soon as the latter joined Dortmund, jostling began to position themselves for what came next, much as the years leading up to Durant’s free agency were marked by NBA sides trying to build a roster appealing to this once-in-a-generation scorer.

While Durant at least was able to bring his admirers to him, Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola crisscrossed Europe in 2021, meeting with top clubs in a manner that felt more like free agency in American sports (he has other clients at all these teams but no one has suggested that his star striker did not come up in conversations). His every utterance to the media studiously avoided leaving any suitor feeling as if they were out of the race.

“He can and will take the next step,” he said in December. “Bayern, Real, Barcelona, [Manchester] City — these are the big clubs he can go to. City have won the championship five times in the last few years, much more than [Manchester] United.” He would subsequently row back on any suggestion that United might be out of the race, though it has since been said that they believe their hopes have faded.

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It is in Raiola’s interests to keep as many clubs in the mix as possible. After all, it is not as if there can be any competition on price; the only option for the eight or so sides is to offer the most compelling package of personal terms.

There are, of course, favorites. Several agents have suggested to CBS Sports that Manchester City are his most likely destination while the possibility of a union with Mbappe at the Santiago Bernabeu is often raised. Still, the suitors do not end there. Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and possibly Chelsea, his most active suitors last summer, lurk in the shadows. Barcelona president Joan Laporta has not been shy in expressing his belief that Haaland can be lured to the Camp Nou despite the financial difficulties that would entail.

Only Barcelona recruited a striker in January and their signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was more reflective of a short-term desperation to strengthen Xavi’s squad for a top four push in La Liga. His presence is not the key issue precluding a move for Haaland at a club that is in the process of pulling itself back from the financial precipice.

To get a sense of a market on ice, one might examine the case of Dusan Vlahovic, viewed by some as the best alternative for those clubs who cannot get top prize. He was very publicly made available by Fiorentina at a similar cost to Dortmund’s release clause. Yet none of the clubs mentioned above entered the fray. Ultimately, Juventus had a free road at Serie A’s joint-highest scorer once Arsenal realized that their interest in Vlahovic was not reciprocated.

Expect Haaland to similarly warp the fates of others this summer. The likes of Jonathan David, who is set to leave Lille at the end of the season, know that the biggest clubs may not emerge as options for them until the greatest prize on the market is snared.

Most clubs will be disappointed in their pursuit of Haaland this summer. For those who will still need a striker, Vlahovic might have been the next best option, and yet just the right to be at the table in a few months’ time was enough to quell activity elsewhere.

No wonder. Prizes as great as Haaland come along infrequently. They are worth the risk.

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