Thursday, May 26

The inside story of how Man City signed Erling Haaland

At one time or another, every single one of Europe’s biggest clubs have harboured hopes of signing Erling Haaland. Some have held face-to-face talks with his representatives. Others, like Real Madrid and Barcelona, laid on tours of their training ground and at one stage, Manchester United believed they were so close to sealing a transfer that they began looking at travel options to bring him to the city.

Along with Kylian Mbappe, Haaland is the most coveted young player in the world — and was No. 1 in ESPN’s 39 players U21 list — so much so that the pair have been tipped to take over from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the game’s dominant global icons. Mbappe is still at the centre of his own transfer saga between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, which could see him move on a free this summer, but on Tuesday it was announced that Manchester City have won the €60 million race for Haaland.

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Sources close to the club have told ESPN they believe they’ve signed a generational superstar in a deal that could go down as one of the best in football history. They have also done it with minimal fuss and in plenty of time to ensure Haaland will be on the plane with the rest of Pep Guardiola’s squad for their preseason tour of the United States ahead of a debut season in the Premier League.

Guardiola finally has his striker and Haaland, 21, has his chance on the big stage. Here’s how things played out.

With additional reporting by Mark Ogden, Sam Marsden, Moises Llorens, Rodrigo Faez and Alex Kirkland

Man City’s priority: Haaland, Kane, then Haaland

Man City’s scouts — like most around the world — have been aware of Haaland since he made his senior debut for Bryne in Norway as a 15-year-old in 2016, and his reputation as a powerful, prolific goal scorer has only increased in the years since. After a spell under former Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde, he scored 29 goals in 27 games as a teenager for Austrian side FC Salzburg.

In December 2019, he joined Dortmund — where he notched 85 goals in 88 games across two-and-a-half seasons — for his €20m release clause and it was the moment he signed his contract with the Bundesliga side that his eventual switch to City was set in motion.

That transfer to Dortmund was only completed after a proposed move from Salzburg to United — pushed heavily by Solskjaer, then in charge at Old Trafford — broke down over agent Mino Raiola’s insistence that a release clause be inserted into any deal. United argued that it gave Haaland and his representatives control over his future and in the end, they quickly cancelled their travel plans. Dortmund, however, accepted it and a €60m clause — to become active ahead of the 2022 summer transfer window — was included.

Last week, Man City informed Dortmund they intended to trigger it ahead of the June deadline after reaching an agreement in principle with Haaland and his agents following Raiola’s death in April. Haaland’s team relayed their decision to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich — the two other clubs still in the mix for his signature right until the end — in telephone conversations ahead of a weekend trip to Belgium for medical tests in Brussels with City staff.

However, if things had been different last summer, Haaland would be heading elsewhere.

Needing to replace Sergio Aguero, City made England striker Harry Kane their top transfer target in the summer of 2021, but were deterred by Tottenham’s £150m valuation. Sources have told ESPN that City chiefs made it clear during those discussions that if a compromise over Kane couldn’t be reached, then Haaland would be their alternative option the following summer, but that revelation didn’t force Spurs into entering serious negotiations and Kane stayed put. From the moment Kane confirmed he would stay in North London, Haaland became City’s first choice.

There was brief contact with Dortmund about Haaland’s availability a year ago, only for City to be told that Jadon Sancho‘s €85m move to Man United was already advanced and the German giants wouldn’t allow two star players to leave in the same window.

By coincidence, the €12m paid to City as part of Sancho’s move to Old Trafford — courtesy of a clause inserted as part of his move from the Etihad to Dortmund in 2017 — helped them quickly put together the financial framework needed to eventually secure Haaland. Dortmund will receive around €40m for Haaland in a first instalment after July 1, followed by a second at a later date.

City believe they have got a player who would be worth upwards of €200m on the open market at a fraction of the price, and there have been jokes inside the club that the €60m fee is less than Man United paid to sign much-maligned midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018.

‘An emotional connection’

Haaland will immediately become one of City’s highest earners when he joins officially on July 1, but sources close to the club insist they haven’t broken their wage structure and that his salary is not above that of Kevin De Bruyne‘s £375,000-a-week. Dressing room harmony is a priority for Guardiola regardless of the player, while those closest to Haaland insist the move isn’t driven by money anyway.

His representatives are well aware they could have made more money from a move to United — a team also in the market for a young striker this summer — but sources have told ESPN their interest was dismissed out of hand months ago.

There’s a theory that United’s decision to sack Solskjaer — a close friend and former international teammate of Erling’s father, Alfie — ended any hope that Haaland could head to Old Trafford, but sources have told ESPN it was never a factor. Alfie Haaland has a good relationship with Ralf Rangnick from his time at Red Bull — Rangnick was appointed director of football of both FC Salzburg and RB Leipzig in 2012 before his stint as interim boss at Old Trafford — and the decision to snub United was made simply because they are no longer competitive in the Premier League and Champions League.

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Sources close to Haaland have told ESPN that interest from clubs was weighed up in terms of their “sporting project” — the manager, the style of play and their ability to be successful on the pitch. But City ticked all the boxes. The chance to work with Guardiola was a big factor, particularly as Haaland is desperate to win the Ballon d’Or, football’s most prestigious individual prize.

Having started plotting their next move since the ink was drying on his contract at Borussia Dortmund, Haaland and his team have done their homework about where to go next. In April 2021, Raiola — who died last month following illness — and Alfie Haaland visited Real Madrid and Barcelona on the same day. Earlier this year, there were talks with both Chelsea and Bayern Munich, but it was City who left the best impression.

Real Madrid were also seriously considered, but their pursuit of Mbappe complicated matters, while 34-year-old Karim Benzema has shown he’s far from finished as a top-level striker after a season during which he has already topped 40 goals in all competitions.

Even if the Premier League offers a sterner test than LaLiga for a young striker, it is City and Guardiola who are crying out for a No. 9 having navigated the campaign without one following Aguero’s departure. On top of that, and everything else City have been able to offer, it’s also being billed as a homecoming after Alfie played for City between 2000 and 2003.

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Erling was born in England a month after Alfie joined the club from Leeds, and there are still employees who remember holding him as a baby. Haaland and his father were in the stands at Wembley for City’s 3-1 win over Sunderland in the 2014 League Cup final. City look after their former players, and Alfie has been back a number of times over the years as a guest or fan. According to sources, Erling feels he’s joining a club with which he has “an emotional connection.”

What happens from here?

Haaland to City feels like the right fit for both club and player, but it’s not a move without risk.

Sources have told ESPN that Chelsea scouts raised concerns about whether Haaland’s style of play would be suited to the Premier League because there’s less space for forward players to attack and run into, compared with the Bundesliga. Recruitment staff at Barcelona reported back that they had reservations about his personality and character. Real Madrid, according to sources, took issue with his injury record — he’s missed 17 club games this season mainly because of muscular problems — although there’s an acceptance from the Spanish club that it didn’t put them off completely, and there was a point around February when even those involved in City’s bid believed he may end up at the Bernabeu.

Still only 21, there is still a chance he might.

Haaland’s representatives, led by his father, have carefully planned each stage of his career and his move to City is that next step. Haaland has made no secret of his desire to one day play for Real Madrid and while City are well aware of his ambitions, they will back themselves to make life so comfortable at the Etihad Stadium that he never wants to leave. That tactic has worked with Guardiola, who has signed two contract extensions since his arrival in 2016 and hasn’t ruled out agreeing to another this summer.

For now, though, City, Guardiola and Haaland can all be happy that they’ve got what they wanted. A transfer tale more than two years in the making has ended with one of Europe’s best young players joining one of Europe’s best teams. They will both hope it turns out to be a dream one.

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