Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Erling Haaland's exponential dribbling improvement

Compare Erling Haaland’s ability to control the ball with his feet from last year against Arsenal to this year. It is the area at which the Manchester City forward has seen the most improvement, and an area to focus on during Sunday’s match.

Figure 1.1 - Bad pass back to Rico Lewis with Erling Haaland's left foot.
Figure 1.2 - First touch with right foot directs the ball high, allowing the defender to close down the space behind.
Figure 1.3 - Large first touch with Erling Haaland's left foot, which closes the space Kevin De Bruyne has to receive, and then Erling Haaland passes out-of-bounds.

Haaland’s first touch was fairly inconsistent when he joined Manchester City. Never fully controlled. Unpredictable. Sometimes close to the body, sometimes it bobbled high, sometimes the touch was too heavy. Attempting to dribble in a tight space was usually fruitless so it was always avoided.

That misplaced first, second, or third touch delays the pass, and when you delay the pass the pocket of space the man receiving the ball has shrinks in half because he draws all the defenders towards the ball.

City can only afford to ignore an outfield player if that player is scoring goals, and we know Haaland is good at scoring goals. But he is someone who learns super quick and you can tell the primary focus in his development is dribbling.

René Marić coached Haaland at Borussia Dortmund, and he talks about how fast a learner he is in this Training Ground Guru Podcast episode:

I’ve never seen someone who is as quick a learner as Erling. The way he adapts these things from the training to the game and the understanding of these things is very underrated and a hidden quality from him, because he’s always described as this very physical striker. He’s a very smart guy.

I think if you have a father who keeps you on the right path, if you have that character he has. He was not an early bloomer, from what I gathered. If you stay at your hometown club, if you have that eagerness to improve, I think that comes with it.

With each match he just gets better and better and better. He’s gone from someone you would want to avoid passing the ball to, to dribbling like a midfielder, in one season.

Figure 2.1 - Okay reach out with the left foot, good first touch, and then quick second touch to ready the pass.
Figure 2.2 - Good first touch inside with the left foot, close control quick little touches hold-up play, and then pass-and-move.
Figure 2.3 - Good first touch into space with the left foot and then quick smaller touches to control.

Now he looks more assured with his first touch. His second and third touches are always quicker and tighter, more controlled. The pass has been more consistent. It’s the touches after the first touch that have improved the most. Now the man receiving the ball from has plenty of time and space. He fits in when he drops now.

I have noticed one downside to him being more comfortable dribbling is that he’s taking more taking more of those smaller touches before shooting. Jon Mackenzie went over the benefits of forwards who take one- or two-touch shots in this thread. I wonder if his recent dip in finishing ability is related to this theory of less one- or two-touch shots.

Once Haaland masters dribbling, shielding the ball in aerial duels, and heading the ball, it’s over. It’s game-changing to have a big-man target center-forward who cannot only score goals, but can also hold-up play on the ground and in the air.

Pre-Match: Manchester City vs Arsenal, 31 March 2023

Players: Erling Haaland

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