Erling Haaland exclusive: Manchester City and Pep Guardiola will make me a better player

Norwegian striker on why he joined City, his hopes for the future, and his admiration for an 'insane' Premier League

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The weight of expectation sits comfortably on the broad shoulders of Erling Haaland.

The hopes of a nation and those of the champions of England have draped themselves around the substantial frame of Manchester City’s No 9 and he couldn’t be happier.

As he approaches his 22nd birthday – his new team will be playing Club America in Houston, Texas on the day, July 21 – Norwegian prodigy Haaland knows exactly what he wants to achieve in the coming years: happiness and success.

There’s not a hint of arrogance, or self-aggrandisement when it comes to straight-talking Haaland, who sat down with The National before City’s departure to the USA on their pre-season tour.

“If you ask me stupid questions you will get stupid answers,” announced Pep Guardiola’s new centre-forward with a smile as he took his place in the indoor playing arena at the City Football Academy.

Carving out a new life in Manchester, improving his game under Guardiola, his hopes of winning the biggest trophies, rivalry with Liverpool, his mum and dad’s influence, spearheading his country’s return to football’s top table and playing his way into City fans’ affections were all subjects he covered. There was even time to give a thumbs up to women’s football.

He’s only been in Manchester for a few days and inside the dressing room for even less time but his instincts already tell him it’s going to be enjoyable and special.

“In terms of settling in, everything is good,” he said. “My father and uncle are helping me a lot. My dad knows the country and the area. It’s important to have that support system around you so that you can settle into a new place quickly. I have only been in the dressing room for a couple of days but I like the vibe. It’s a good vibe and that’s important for me.

“I’m a relaxed guy. I just try to be myself. I say what I mean but I’m not a mean guy. For me it is a lot about having fun, working hard and being serious. That’s a good mix.”

Football doesn’t come any more significant than trying to win the Premier and Champions Leagues and Haaland, who arrived from Dortmund as the hottest property in the global game, is excited to become part of rivalries that he has watched from afar.

“It’s been insane in the Premier League for the last few years with the two teams Liverpool and City pushing one another and Klopp and Guardiola pushing one another,” he said.

“Everyone has been talking about it. To push one another to the very last game, it is not often that happens. I think it is good for English football and for the clubs to reach the next level. It has been nice to watch. Hopefully the rivalry will grow and the competition get tougher.”

Haaland is under no illusion that teams will already be plotting how to stop him and that he may immediately become the most marked man in the game.

“I know I will have a target on my back when it comes to defenders,” he said. “That’s OK. They should all concentrate on me and then there is more space for the others. Maybe my presence will create a lot of space for others.

“The challenge is accepted but I don’t think too much about it. I know that people want to stop me and if they want to put five men on me it means more room for my teammates – they are not bad players.

“I love the big games. I have already played against City and Liverpool. It’s special. I live for that feeling. I can achieve what I want to achieve here. We have the ingredients that can make big things happen. I want to play good football, I want to enjoy it and I want to win.

“Individual awards are not something I think about. I just want City to win. I want to get to know the players and start to understand them and get that connection with them and the fans. What will come then, will come. You have to have a strong collective to win anything. It’s the most important thing in today’s football.”

At 194cm in height, weighing 90kg and self-described as “fast”, Haaland is a fearsome prospect for defenders to deal with. Worryingly for them, he is still growing and believes he is only going to continue improving under the tutelage of Guardiola.

“I was attracted to come here and play because I have seen how Pep has developed players,” he explained. “It’s a huge thing. I want to be part of the beautiful football City play. I think Pep can add a lot of things to my game. I will try to do all the things I’m good at and not overthink too much. I will be instinctive.

“I know there are expectations here, there were expectations, too, when I went to Dortmund. Those will always be there, That’s OK with me. I don’t think too much about it.”

With a Norwegian press pack now domiciled in Manchester and fans understandably keen to get a glimpse of their new idol, Haaland’s life away from the training round promises to be under scrutiny.

Norway's Erling Haaland celebrates after they beat Sweden in the Nations League in June. Reuters

If that side of fame fazes him then the young striker, whose dad Alfie captained City two decades ago, doesn’t let it show.

“Being a well-known footballer means you have to adapt a little bit in your lifestyle and how you do things but I try to live as normally as I can,” he said. “I try to do the same things that I did as a teenager in my home town. I try to live as normally as possible. I don’t know how it will be here in Manchester in terms of life away from football but I shall see.

“A footballer’s life is different. We meet up, we eat together and we train and normally the day is finished and then we travel a lot. There is not a lot of time for much else. My off time is about relaxing. My dad loves golf. I used to play when I was younger so maybe I will get back into it.

“It is important to switch off and think of something else other than my game or who we are playing. But I am a football guy so when I am not playing I will watch other games on the TV all-day but like a fan would. It’s not that I’m focused on the technical aspect or the tactics, I just like it as a sport too. I watch for fun.”

Haaland revealed that he could have come to England sooner but he’s convinced that this is exactly the right time to showcase his talents in the Premier League. He also confirmed it wasn’t just dad Alfie who advised a reunion with the north of England but also his mum Gry. She spent a decade here with Alfie and as a successful heptathlete is credited by Erling for passing on her genes.

Haaland celebrates scoring for Dortmund. AFP

“I could have come to England at other stages of my career but I think I made the right choices at the right time. Molde, Salzburg and Dortmund have been perfect choices so I am not complaining.

“Three years ago City didn’t want me because they had [Sergio] Aguero up front, so there was no choice about coming here.

“Moving back to England is a bit special. I talked to my mum about it and she wanted me to move to England. She lived here for ten years. We’ve been on vacation over here too because we like it. It’s special.

“My mum was very fast and a good athlete and so was my grandma. So I have a bit of speed from them.”

When he signed for City one of the first people to contact him was his countryman and former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who sent him a note of congratulation and wished him luck. They still talk occasionally and Haaland will be forever grateful for the influence the former Manchester United boss had on his career.

Haaland is also quick to praise the input from other former coaches. Alf ingve-Berntsen, Marco Rose, Edin Terzic, and Jesse Marsch, the current Leeds United manager under whom he scored 29 goals in 27 games for Salzburg.

Each of those coaches have helped shape not just Haaland’s game but also his body. He’s grown from a gangly, skinny kid into a man mountain and he feels he has not yet reached his physical peak.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland and Manchester City's Phil Foden after the teams met in the Champions League in April, 2021. Reuters

“I’m still growing and so are my muscles,” he revealed. “I’m not fully grown and that’s a good thing. I have put on weight and muscle at every club I have been to, so we will see what happens here.

“I have a trainer and we do some things that are designed specially for me. I am over 90kg now and it’s about maintenance and small details of daily life over the whole of a season.”

Interest back home in Haaland’s career is intense. Norway failed to make this year’s World Cup finals in Qatar but the 21-year-old is on a mission to make sure that doesn’t happen next time around.

“In Norway I guess I am a role model and it’s a nice thing,” he said. “It is what I wanted to be when I was young. We have a lot of good players in the pipeline and here in the Premier League there is also Martin Odegaard at Arsenal. He is really developing.

“I want to help Norway return to the European Championships and World Cups like we did 20 years ago when my father played. My goal is to bring Norway to the finals of the big tournaments.

“I know what I want. I am here to try to enjoy England and the Premier League. It’s the league a lot of people in Norway grow up watching. Lots of my countrymen travel to England just to watch games.”

For now though, Haaland is preparing with his teammates for a pre-season that will see City face Club America on July 21 in the NRG Stadium Houston and then Bayern Munich on Sunday July 24. The third and final public warm up contest is the Community Shield match against Liverpool at the King Power Stadium in Leicester on July 30.

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I will try to put a little bit of extra fire into everybody. It's very important to have that good connection with supporters
Erling Haaland

The young striker has already had a long conversation with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak which left the City chief in no doubt that they had signed an “intelligent, driven and highly engaged” player.

“It was an interesting and fun conversation. I am not going to say too much about it but I enjoyed it too,” confirmed Haaland.

When he returns from the USA he also hopes to catch up with fellow Norway international Julie Blakstad, who will be training on pitches around the corner from City’s first team at the CFA.

“I watched the game between England and Norway the other night and I didn’t expect that result (8-0 for England) at all to be honest,” he said.

“But City had a lot of players in the England team too. The European Championships here are good for the game as a whole. It is growing now and it needs to grow more.

“There were 70,000-plus for the opening game of the women’s Euros at Old Trafford and in Spain there have been some huge attendances. Interest is growing and that is good to see. I think it is important to learn from one another and support one another.”

The other people he is keen to get along with are more City fans who turned out in big numbers to say hello at his recent unveiling outside the Etihad Stadium.

“I had a great rapport with fans in Dortmund and we will have to see what happens here,” he noted. “I will try to put a little bit of extra fire into everybody. It’s very important to have that good connection with supporters. To give something back is really important.”

And with that Haaland was off, with just enough time to go full circle. “Not too many stupid questions,” he laughed.

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Updated: July 14, 2022, 11:22 AM
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