“The worst thing is not being able to play,” Erling Haaland said in an interview with Norway’s Viaplay Fotball in late January. “My biggest wish for the rest of my career is not to be injured. That’s the most important thing. That being said, [injuries] only make me more hungry for success.”

At the time, the 21-year-old had been ruled out of playing for his former side, Borussia Dortmund with a ‘muscular issue’. After he had been forced off in the 63rd minute of their 3-2 win at Hoffenheim with what appeared to be a groin injury, the club released a statement saying: “Haaland is suffering from muscular problems, which require treatment and further examinations in the coming days.”

It was an injury that kept Haaland out of Dortmund’s next four league games and meant he missed both legs of their Europa League tie against Rangers, which ended in a 6-4 aggregate victory for the Scots.

But from March onwards, the striker didn’t miss a single game for his club, despite limping off at half-time of Norway’s 9-0 thrashing of Armenia in late March. After the game, Norway’s coaches insisted Haaland’s early removal was a precautionary move and that an apparent ankle injury was “nothing serious”. His appearance in Dortmund’s first game after the international break (when he played for 90 minutes against RB Leipzig) seemed to back that up.

But in a pre-match press conference two weeks later, the then Dortmund head coach Marco Rose revealed that Haaland had been playing and training through pain. He had also, Rose said, refused an MRI scan. “We can’t stick the lad in an [MRI] tube if he doesn’t want it. He grits his teeth and trains through the pain. All the swelling isn’t ideal, but it’s getting better. It came down relatively quickly after the [round 29] Stuttgart game.”

By the end of the season, Haaland had missed 16 games in all competitions for his club. It’s a statistic that is easily counterbalanced by the fact that when he does play, he scores goals; last season he notched 29 goals in 30 games. In 2020-21, he scored 41 goals from as many appearances in all competitions and missed 10 games through injury.

And yet it remains one of the few question-marks against a striker who, at 21, has become one of the most exciting prospects in the game. So, is there any real reason for concern over Haaland’s injury record? Have Manchester City taken a risk in spending big on a player who missed significant game time last season? Or are those asking such questions simply desperate to find a chink in the armour of a player set to terrorise Premier League defences next season?

“I think what is possibly some of the concern would be the transition and the physical development,” says Mark Leather, a senior lecturer in sports medicine and therapy who spent more than a decade working in the Premier League, including six years as head physiotherapist for Liverpool. “Growth and maturation, as we call physical, biological or chronological growth, are very important. Somebody’s age might be 14 years old but they are a very early developer which means that they can move up into the under-16s.

“At 17, some are actually playing first-team football, then by the time they’re 20 some have got nearly three full seasons behind them. They are really young men who at the same time of transitioning to full skeletal maturity are potentially in the first team playing lots of games and possibly internationally too.”

Leather says these players can become “victims of their own success” and likens Haaland’s trajectory to that of Michael Owen, who transitioned rapidly from the FA’s School of Excellence in Lilleshall to first-team football with Liverpool and senior-level football with the England team. “One of his (Owen’s) key attributes was his rapidity over short distance,” says Leather. “If you looked at his GPS data in games it would show a lot of repeated high-intensity sprinting activity – lots of accelerations and decelerations, lots of changes of direction.

“The effort required for him to step up and transition to those different levels at a young age, from the national school to first-team football, to the England team – all in a short period of time… ideally there would have been more rotation of the player, more appropriate rest. But looking back, at that time there were probably only two or three players in that team who were at that level, so to leave them out becomes very difficult for managers.

“I would suspect he’s the biggest fish in the Dortmund sea from a monetary value as well as the value on the pitch, because everyone wants a player who scores goals. So it could be that it’s a culmination of being a victim of his own success; Dortmund have been desperate for him to play and he’s been desperate to play and you get that situation where they’re playing too much football.”

erling-haaland

Haaland missed 16 games for Dortmund last season through injury (Photo: Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Stefan Buczko hosts the Dortmund podcast Yellowwallpod and believes this could have been part of the problem for Haaland: “He did not get a lot of rest. When he was able to walk [after returning from injury], Dortmund pretty much threw him in. It always felt a bit rushed. Obviously, if you have a player of this calibre and you are struggling for whatever reason, then you want him on the field.”

During Haaland’s first season at Dortmund (2019-20) he played a total of 18 games (15 of those in the Bundesliga). In 2020-21 that number jumped to 41 games, before injuries forced a drop to 30 last season.

Buczko points out that it wasn’t only Haaland who spent plenty of time injured last season. Dortmund had one of the worst injury records in the Bundesliga, leaving Rose able to select his best XI on only a handful of occasions. “There were a lot of accusations levelled at Rose to say his training concept did provoke a lot of muscular injuries,” says Buczko, “but I think it’s more speculation than actual facts.”

Leather notes that Dortmund’s style of play could be to blame. “Historically, from when Jurgen Klopp was manager, they played a very high-intensity pressing game all over the pitch and the data was phenomenal. That does have a bearing on a player if they’re not used to working like that and suddenly have to do it.

“If Haaland’s not been conditioned appropriately then it seems to me he’s probably been injured at Dortmund last season because of what’s gone on for the previous two years.”

It should, though, be noted that Rose’s Dortmund were less proficient at applying such an intense pressing style.

Photos of Haaland as a young player at Bryne in Norway show a tall, slight kid whose shirt often billowed around his frame. Naturally, he filled out as he reached his later teenage years, but over the last couple he’s added a lot more muscle to the equation. In an interview last year he told AS he had put on a stone in muscle between signing for Dortmund in January 2020 and last summer.

“If you look at my body, if you look at my legs, you will see that I have changed a lot. I am completely different. I have become a real man,” he said. “I have become faster. That is one of the most important things. I have gone from 86 kilos to 94, but it is not a beer belly, it is about gross muscle mass. I take great care of what I eat.”

Speed, power and size can be immense attributes for a footballer but can they also be detrimental? The great Brazilian striker Ronaldo was also a seemingly unstoppable force with size, speed and power on his side. But he suffered a series of injuries that eventually robbed him of the explosiveness that had wowed so many in his early years.

In 2018 his former physiotherapist told FourFourTwo that Ronaldo’s “explosive capacity” was partly to blame: “He didn’t just run fast in a straight line, he also changed direction at incredible speed. There were several moments when Ronaldo fell, stood up, and then moved from left to right very fast…so it was obvious, by the way he played, that injuries were always a possibility.”

Physiotherapist Luke Anthony worked in injury prevention at Norwich City for two years from 2015-17. “We looked at a lot of the data in terms of trying to predict injury, because once you know what the factors are, where you can predict injury, that’s a starting point to then try and prevent the injury happening. There’s no robust data on style of play or physical size to say, if you’re bigger or heavier, you get certain types of injuries, that isn’t a factor. You can have ideas on it but there’s nothing in the research to show that if you are a certain physical stature you are more or less prone to injury than someone who weighs 20kg less or is 10cm smaller.”

Anthony, who spent 18 years working in professional football before setting up his own injury clinic, Go Perform, does agree that an individual’s movement patterns can play a role in their injury history. “If you have someone who’s able to create high forces by being high-speed but they have less muscular strength, then they put more stress through their system and are more likely to have injuries.

“The problem is, once you’ve had one injury it predisposes you to further injury down the line. Think about Michael Owen; you pick up a hamstring injury early in your career, you are more likely to have hamstring injuries further down the line. Is that because you were born more injury-prone or is that because you develop an injury history and that is then the thing that predisposes you to further injury?”

The biggest predictors of future injury are previous injury and age, says Anthony. At 21 (he turns 22 in July), Haaland clearly has no worries on the latter.

And the former? Prior to the 2021-22 season, the worst of his injuries was a hamstring tear in December 2020 which kept him out for four games, and he returned to complete the season with no recurrence of the injury. Last season, a torn hip flexor kept him on the sidelines for a month. He returned, only to suffer a ‘muscle injury’, reported to be to his adductor (a muscle on the inner thigh), that kept him out for a further four weeks. Only Haaland and the Dortmund medical team will know if those two injuries are connected but, given their location, it’s certainly a possibility.

“If it’s something that requires a month-plus out then there’s that increased risk going forward,” says Anthony. “Even if you’ve recovered from it, that risk carries on for the future. So if there is something in terms of his injury history in the last couple of seasons that’s been recurrent, then it stands to reason that’s going to be one of the risk factors for him going forward.”

haaland-dortmund

Haaland has said his injuries have only made him hungry for more success (Photo: Roland Krivec/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Injuries can occur in something of a vicious cycle, adds Leather, who says that a player’s recovery from injury has to be carefully monitored to avoid a first injury spreading to a second and even a third. “They might not be major injuries but they might have a few episodes where they’ve been out for a month or five to six weeks. You have three of those in a season and that’s a third or quarter of your season gone with relatively minor muscle strains or joint problems.

“Then obviously there are longer-term injuries that can be picked up with that so, in a way, you become de-conditioned, de-trained and it becomes a harder effort to maintain what you were doing before quite easily. Then, by overloading the body to keep up with where you were before, it’s taking a greater effort so the physical stress factor becomes a greater load to bear and something gives again. It’s a very delicate balance.”

Leather believes that Haaland’s move to Manchester City could actually be the best thing for him, physically. “He’s going to a club where they do seem to rotate the players and have been successful with that,” says Leather, who recalls that during his time at Liverpool (1994-99) there were two or three “nailed-on starters” who would be playing every week regardless. “Manchester City are not like that; they’ve got 15 or 16 of them. They’re blessed with a pool of talent, so there should be plenty of opportunity to transition that player into that club.”

Leather believes that the quality of opposition Haaland will be facing every week is greater in the Premier League than the Bundesliga, but says the demand that will place on him physically could be balanced out by the difference in playing style between Dortmund and Manchester City. “You’re with a team that keeps the ball for longer periods of time, so maybe it’s not so much the case that he’ll have to work as hard as he might have done at Dortmund.

“There are other players in the team at City who can take some of the pressure off him – goals can come from all over the pitch. At Dortmund, he’s the main supplier of those goals by a country mile (Dortmund’s next highest scorers, Marco Reus and Julian Brandt both notched nine league goals last season to Haaland’s 22). Maybe in some ways you can argue he might have to work less to achieve more.”

City’s medical staff will, of course, have already had their first look at Haaland and Anthony says their approach will have been to leave no stone unturned. “As a physio or medical person going into these medicals, I always say, do everything that you may then later rely on in court because, if something goes wrong and this guy breaks down after a month, six months or a year, you need to have everything covered.”

A lot of that comes down to imaging, says Anthony. Scanning knees, ankles, hips and the lumbar spine. Hamstring, calf and quad muscles might also be looked at. Then there are ligament tests, joint-based tests and muscle tests, as well as medical tests such as bloods and cardio testing.

Injury history is also a large part of the pre-signing medical. “When signing a player I would almost forensically go through, week by week, all his previous seasons,” says Anthony. “How many games did he play? Why did he miss three games there? Why did he come off early in that game?

“Players are very poor historians, mostly because they just forget these things. You can’t rely on what they tell you; you have to do a lot of digging down and work out where the gaps are in their playing history.”

Would Dortmund’s medical team have shared their information on Haaland with City before the deal? Only if Haaland had given the club permission, says Anthony. “The player would have to declare that he’s happy for that to happen because that’s his personal information. Sometimes there will be a situation where a player will say, ‘I had a scan two years ago which showed a big cartilage defect. My knee is fine but it will still be there.’ And they may not want to share that [with the buying club].

“Sometimes you’ll speak to the physio at the other club and they’ll give you a heads-up: ‘He’s a good guy, plays all the games, trains, never misses anything, etc.’ But the biggest thing is players who’ve played lots of games. Generally, that’s a good sign. When you look at their history and they’ve played 40 games, 45, 42 year on year, that means they generally tolerate training well and are pretty robust.”

Haaland is young, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he hasn’t yet collated a series of 40-plus game seasons (just one so far, in 2020-21), though last season’s injuries scuppered his chances of making it two seasons running. The next 12-18 months could be crucial to his long-term development, says Leather. “It’s an opportunity to almost have a re-check of his body; a re-check of what his condition is, what training principles, exercises and drills he’s doing.

haaland-foden

Surrounded by outstanding players like Phil Foden at Manchester City will mean more chance for rotation for Haaland (Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’m sure City will do that and come up with their own ideas of how to look after him in the best way because he’s a big asset and they’re not desperate to play him every week.”

Is it a risky signing? “The fact he hasn’t had a history of playing a lot of games, mainly because of his age, that is just an unknown – as simple as that,” says Anthony. “And the fact it’s an unknown puts it as a risk. But your job then (as a club) is to mitigate that risk.”

If City’s expectation is that Haaland will be leading the line in every game and have a high physical workload placed on him to develop him in training then that is certainly a risk, he warns. “But the manager and staff aren’t naive. They’ve bought him to do well next season but they want him to do well over the next three, four or five seasons,” says Anthony.

“As a young player you’re not as physically developed at 21 as you are at 24, 25 or 26. And there’s a number of years of training you’ll need to put into him to get him to that level. They’ll have a plan in place where they’ll develop him and it’ll be a progressive thing as opposed to an expectation that he hits the ground running, leading the line and with a high workload placed on him.”

(Top Photo: Alex Gottschalk/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.