A strange sensation has been coming over Erling Braut Haaland in his Norway jersey. Count up the minutes, but seek, in vain, the goals.
Haaland has been on the pitch for 145 minutes in the current World Cup qualifying session. In his previous game for his country he played the full 90. But he has now gone without an international goal for well over four hours of action.
For most strikers, this would not become an eye-catching figure. When it attaches to a young player who has been shattering records for prolific form across high-class club competitions, it raises attention.
This is Haaland the unstoppable, who has 21 goals from 21 games this season, a prolific rate he has now maintained for well over a season now, since he signed, as a teenager, a four-and-a-half year contract with Borussia Dortmund in December 2019.
This is the same Haaland who will in eight days’ time confront Manchester City in the Champions League with even more daunting European form. He has scored in every match he has played in the competition this season, and twice in each of his last four, propelling Dortmund to the quarter-finals with two braces of goals in the last-16 victory over Sevilla.
The contrast with his most recent Norway showings is stark. Gibraltar and Northern Ireland have lately found ways to stop him that Bayern Munich, Sevilla and most club defences could not.
Hence the criticism from within Norway that trails Haaland, still only 20, for Tuesday’s meeting with Montenegro, when a Norwegian team peppered with up-and-coming talent attempt to realign their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign after the weekend’s setback, a 3-0 defeat to Turkey, pacesetters in a group that also includes the Netherlands.
“He’s not playing with the self-confidence we know him for,” observed the pundit and former striker Bernt Hulsker, on Norwegian television, while John Arne Riise, the former Liverpool and Roma full-back and the country’s most capped player, detected an out-of-character passiveness about Haaland during the loss to Turkey. “We hear him being praised for being so emotional when things don’t go right at Dortmund, but we’re not seeing any of that,” said Riise.
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That Dortmund passion was much in evidence just before the international break, when, against Cologne, Haaland contributed another two goals, and, as he had against Bayern two weeks earlier, Dortmund still dropped points.
He left the field at a quick, angry march at the final whistle. Dortmund’s league position is alarming. They are outside the top four that would bring Champions League football for next season, four points shy of Eintracht Frankfurt, who Dortmund host on Saturday.
All of which points to an imminent crossroads for the brilliant prodigy. He is coveted by various superclubs in Spain and England, some of whom, such as Manchester City or Manchester United, can raise the type of transfer fee – well over €100 million ($118m) – that Dortmund would set for Haaland were he to push hard to leave this summer, a year ahead of what had been the outline plan to suit the club and player’s development ladder.
But that plan assumed Champions League football with Dortmund, and Haaland, the fastest player ever to reach 20 goals in the competition, will not sit happily by for a season deprived of playing in club football's most prestigious event – especially after a summer when he will be missing out on the major international showpiece, the European Championships.
Haaland, surrounded by experienced advisors, knows that summer international tournaments stimulate or heighten transfer interest, especially in attacking players.
The Euros will feature a few who might feel this a year to listen to offers, the likes of England’s Harry Kane, facing another year without Champions League football with Tottenham Hotspur, or Kylian Mbappe, who has one full season left on his Paris Saint-Germain deal.
But Norway’s exceptional centre-forward will not be on show, his country having fallen short of reaching the Euros at the play-off stage. There is impatience to end the long Norwegian wait for involvement in a major tournament.
Norway have not been at a World Cup since 1998, or a Euros since 2000, an era when Haaland’s father Alfie, was still wearing the national jersey.
Haaland junior should have enough creative talent around him with the current Norway to make more of his power, his speed, his uncanny scent of goal.
His new captain is Martin Odegaard, the 22-year-old thriving at Arsenal on loan from Real Madrid, and very much an ally through his four-hour goal drought. “We need to play better football,” said Odegaard, “and to be setting up more chances for Erling.”