Erling Haaland appears destined to be a superstar of the next 10 years.
At the age of just 20 he is already one of the best strikers in Europe and could command the second high profile transfer of his career sooner rather than later as Manchester City and Chelsea in particular aim to poach him from Borussia Dortmund.
Haaland is reminiscent of a number of retired strikers in different ways, including Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, but perhaps the closest resemblance is to Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was a leading marksman of the 2000s with Manchester United and Real Madrid, arguably underappreciated.
The question is, who is actually the better player between them?
Van Nistelrooy was not a slow player by any stretch of the imagination, but great speed and acceleration is a significant part of what makes Haaland extremely special.
It is the Norwegian’s explosive burst of pace over the first few yards of a foot race that gives him an advantage over most defenders he faces. His stop-start pattern can be particularly devastating because the exact moment of the sudden change of pace is unpredictable.
For a player of Haaland’s physical stature, his speed is actually a pleasant surprise. Other players he has been likened to don’t have that pace, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example. Fernando Torres possessed a similar stop-start burst but was much less physically imposing.
For a player so young, Haaland has exceptional football intelligence and penalty area awareness that creates him the space for chances, but Van Nistelrooy was a true master.
Because he didn’t have the same searing pace as Haaland does now, or one of his contemporaries in Thierry Henry, the Dutchman had to rely on other attributes to get a step ahead.
The timing of his runs was usually impeccable when it came to beating offside traps and he could put himself into a goalscoring position in the penalty area by engineering just a few extra inches of space. Like most elite poachers, positioning is often at least as important as technical skill.
Winner: Van Nistelrooy
This is such a tough one to judge as both have stunning records.
Both players are clinical finishers, capable of turning even the slightest chance into a goal because of everything that has already been discussed. Both have also proven themselves to be too good for a league but then quickly risen to the top at a higher level as well.
For Van Nistelrooy, that came when he scored 73 goals in 78 appearances in his first two seasons at PSV Eindhoven. But, after recovering from his first major knee injury, he then scored 36 straight off the bat for Manchester United and then got 44 in all competitions in his second year at Old Trafford, becoming one of the best strikers in Europe.
Once Haaland broke into the Red Bull Salzburg first-team in 2019, it was quickly clear that he was too good. He was the leading goalscorer in that season’s Champions League group stage and had scored 28 times in 22 appearances in only half a season before joining Dortmund.
Since that move to Germany at the start of 2020 and what should have been a significant step up in competition, Haaland has averaged virtually a goal a game.
What gives Van Nistelrooy the edge here is the fact he was consistent over a number of years, scoring 280 goals over a 10-year period from 1998 and 2008, during which he had two major injuries. Haaland is so young that he simply hasn’t had opportunity to do that yet and it is impossible to say he will for certain until he actually does because nothing in elite football is a given.
Winner: Van Nistelrooy
Link up play is another thing that Haaland does well, again somewhat surprisingly for a player so young when it is a more mature skill to develop, but Van Nistelrooy has the edge.
As well as playing on the shoulder of defenders looking to make runs into the space behind, both players are more than happy to drop deeper to receive the ball with their back to goal. Even just the motion and pulling defenders out of place has the effect of creating space for other runners.
Winner: Van Nistelrooy
Van Nistelrooy and Haaland actually had similar early paths. Neither emerged from the youth ranks at a big club and both started their respective professional careers playing below top flight level.
Before he was scouted by Heerenveen, Van Nistelrooy started out in the Dutch second tier with Den Bosch and didn’t make his Eredivisie debut until the age of 21.
Haaland’s first professional club Byrne in Norway’s second division, where he got his debut at 15.
At this stage of his fledgling career, Haaland has achieved more than Van Nistelrooy, who was 22 when he started to get noticed internationally at PSV and scoring goals in the Champions League. Haaland, by contrast, was 19 when he burst onto the scene last season.
Van Nistelrooy suffered three major knee injuries by the age of 32. He also suffered an ankle injury that required surgery when he was 31 towards the end of his second season with Real Madrid and was no longer really a prolific goal threat after that.
Aside from the major knee injuries, Van Nistelrooy’s fitness was otherwise good at his peak and he played at least 32 of 38 Premier League games in four of his five seasons at Manchester United. But he had also suffered with fitness problems earlier in his career at PSV shortly before his first major knee problem pushed back his move to England by 12 months.
Haaland hasn’t experienced those kinds of problems to date in his five years as a pro. He suffered a hamstring tear in December 2020 that ruled him out for six games and could be considered the first significant injury of his career, other than occasional knocks and minor strains.
This is an extremely tough one to call because of a lot of Haaland is assumed long-term potential judged on what he has achieved so far in a relatively short space of time, compared to Van Nistelrooy for whom there is a whole career, highs and lows, to look at.
Van Nistelrooy had tangible success in the form of five league titles won in three different countries, as well as domestic cups and individual accolades at a high level. Haaland might well win all of that and more during his career and it certainly looks likely, but he hasn’t so far.
Haaland is basically almost as good at 20 as Van Nistelrooy was at his peak. In time, he will probably be better than the Dutch legend, but that hasn’t happened yet and he still has things to prove before ‘who is better’ can be called in his favour.
For now, and it is only for now, Van Nistelrooy takes it.