Erling Braut Haaland: Is Red Bull Salzburg striker really 'the next Zlatan Ibrahimovic'?

Erling Haaland
Red Bull Salzburg have won eight and drawn one of their nine league games this season

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The new Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

That was the question one newspaper asked in September after Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haaland announced himself in the Champions League with a debut hat-trick in Red Bull Salzburg's 6-2 win over Genk.

Maybe Ibrahimovic wouldn't agree - after all, there is only one Zlatan - but it is an understandable comparison.

The two Scandinavians, both well over 6ft tall, have an unwavering confidence in their own ability. Both have a reputation as prolific goalscorers.

But while Ibrahimovic is nearing the end of his football career, 19-year-old Haaland is just starting. He has scored 17 goals in 10 club games, including four hat-tricks, and will look to add to that tally for Salzburg against Liverpool on Wednesday (20:00 BST).

Born in Leeds, and mad on Leeds United, Haaland grew up loving the English game. A chance to test himself at Anfield will be a significant moment.

From West Yorkshire to West Norway

Why Leeds? Because of his father.

Alf-Inge Haaland was a tough-tackling midfielder at Elland Road between 1997 and 2000, helping them reach a Uefa Cup semi-final and finish third in the Premier League.

Erling was born in the city in 2000 but moved to Bryne in Norway with his family when he was three, following his father's retirement.

For someone who was such a huge fan of English football, it was perhaps the ideal move for Erling.

"That part of Norway gets quite a lot of rain," says Norwegian journalist Nils Henrik Smith, who grew up in Bryne and was taught PE by Alf-Inge.

"But around the time the Haalands moved there, the local football team built a new indoor hall, so it made it easier for kids to play football all year round."

Erling's potential from a young age was clear and, after joining Bryne, a growth spurt in his early teens meant he was fast-tracked through the club's youth teams, often playing alongside team-mates a year or two older.

A change of management led to the club's youth-team boss taking over the first team, and he gave Erling his debut at the age of 15.

"I was there for his starting debut," continued Henrik Smith. "He was quick and had a good turn of pace; he made intelligent runs.

"He was tall but gangly at that stage. He didn't have the muscle he has now - but you could see there was raw talent there."

Alf-Inge Haaland
Erling's father Alf-Inge Haaland played for Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City during his 10 years in English football

The 'manchild' moulded in Molde

Someone else who noticed that raw talent was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The Manchester United boss was in charge of Molde when they moved to sign Haaland in January 2017. In the months that followed, they got to work on developing the player into the prolific attacker he is today.

Gym sessions in pre-season helped Haaland develop muscle mass to bulk out his enormous frame while Solskjaer, who scored 167 goals in 420 games for Molde and Manchester United, used his experience to fine-tune his protege's finishing.

The results were instant.

Haaland, nicknamed "Manchild" by his new Molde team-mates because of his size and age, was the focal point of a system that suited his style and scored 12 goals in 25 appearances for the club - including four in a devastating 20-minute spell against league leaders Brann.

"His father is a good friend of mine, so we knew about him for a long time," former Norway striker Jan Age Fjortoft told BBC World Service.

"Then we saw him when he came to Molde under Solskjaer and thought that this was a guy who could go far. First, this is a guy desperate to score goals, which is a good start. Secondly, he has that speed and strength. He's so clear in what he wants."

Erling Braut Haaland
Erling Braut Haaland made his debut for Norway against Malta in September

Zlatan style on the pitch, Zlatan humour off it?

One day before his side's 6-2 win over Genk in the Champions League, Red Bull Salzburg captain Andreas Ulmer was out walking his dog when he suddenly heard a familiar sound.

"Die Meister! Die Besten! Les grandes equipes! The champions!"

It was, for those unfamiliar with its lyrics, the Champions League anthem, being blasted out of a car that was approaching Ulmer. The car pulled up alongside him, the window came down and there in the driver's seat was Haaland. He was listening to the Champions League anthem to psych himself up for the game.

"It's maybe my favourite song," Haaland told Red Bull Salzburg's official website. "I've been listening to the Champions League anthem since I was a little kid."

It is the sort of story you would not be surprised to hear told about Ibrahimovic. As well as their similarities on the football pitch, the two appear to possess similar characteristics off it.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played for some of Europe's leading clubs, including Manchester United, AC Milan, Barcelona and Paris St-Germain

After his Champions League hat-trick, Haaland was unsurprisingly the man of the moment and, stood in front of a television camera, he was asked by a Uefa journalist how he was feeling following the biggest achievement in his fledgling career.

"Very good," was Haaland's short response, said with a wry smile on his face.

The interviewer pressed on: "What's the secret? Seventeen goals now in nine games..."

"To work hard."

"Your father scored at Anfield in 1997 - are you going to follow suit?"

"I hope so."

Arrogant? Maybe. Confident? Definitely. It is perhaps no surprise,, given Ibrahimovic was the player Haaland aspired to be while growing up.

"I had many role models and looked up to many football players, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the greatest of them all," he said.

"The way he got so good, the way he plays… Besides, he's Scandinavian, so he has to be followed by one!"

Haaland leading the way for Norway's golden generation?

The late 1990s and early 2000s was a golden era for Norwegian football, as a steady stream of talented players played in Europe's top leagues.

The last major tournament Norway qualified for was Euro 2000, when their squad included Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Henning Berg, John Arne Riise, John Carew and Eirik Bakke.

Those players have all long since retired and, for a while, Norway appeared to have been left in the football wilderness.

But Haaland is one of an exciting group of up-and-coming Norwegian talent.

Twenty-year-old midfielder Martin Odegaard, on loan at Real Sociedad from Real Madrid, is one of the standout performers in La Liga at the moment, while towering 21-year-old defender Kristoffer Ajer is a regular starter at Celtic.

"Norwegians are excited," continued Henrik Smith.

"However, there are people that will say Haaland's hat-trick was only against Genk, so maybe we can't get too excited just yet."

Red Bull Salzburg now, Man Utd next?

Given his self-confessed love of English football, Haaland seems destined to one day play in the Premier League.

But with which team? And when?

The link with Solskjaer would make Manchester United an obvious destination, although Haaland said in a 2017 interview with a Norwegian newspaper that he wanted to "win the Premier League with Leeds United".

That, with the greatest respect to Leeds, is probably not going to happen any time soon, but one thing appears certain: Haaland, under the guidance of his father Alf-Inge, will consider his next move carefully.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Will Haaland eventually link up with fellow Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United?

Juventus expressed an interest but the forward chose instead to move to Austria last January, recognising Red Bull Salzburg's commitment to nurturing young talent.

Liverpool duo Sadio Mane and Naby Keita both played there before earning big moves. Mane went to the Premier League with Southampton, Keita to the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.

"I thought it was too early to go there," Haaland said of the Juventus interest.

"Salzburg was the club that suited me the best and I also think it was very important to look at how important a part I was going to play for the club I joined. There is more of a chance of playing here."

Molde managing director Oystein Neerland is confident Haaland will move when the time is right.

"Alf-Inge has brought up a good son and has been a good father in football in advising him to choose the right steps so far," Neerland told BBC Radio 5 Live's Football Daily podcast.

"As I know him from Molde, I think Erling will manage and take control of the situation. It was a good transfer from Molde to Salzburg and maybe in some years he will take some steps to a bigger club.

"I think he can be an even better player and reach a higher level."

Whatever his next move may be, Haaland's stock will only continue to rise if he can maintain his phenomenal goalscoring start to this season.

And if he puts in another headline-grabbing performance against Liverpool on Wednesday, Ibrahimovic himself might even sit up and take notice.

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