This issue investigates the meteoric rise of Erling Haaland, the latest recipient of the prestigious Golden Boy award. The award recognises outstanding individual performance that calendar year for young footballers under 21. As we will discover, not all Golden Boys are created equal. Some enjoy moderate success for club and country. Some break goal records and dazzle audiences. Some are, perhaps unfairly, labelled flops for failing to reach the great expectations placed on them as adolescents.
One guy stands above all the Golden Boys - without a doubt the most successful Golden Boy recipient. Depending on who you ask, he's the greatest of all time. You might have heard of him. His name is Lionel Messi. Let's call him Platinum Boy, the king of the Golden Boys.
Is Haaland a contender to fill those shoes? Is the next Platinum Boy racking up goals at PSG? Is he trying to find form at Atlético? The debate is fierce. For now, the focus is on Haaland, a worldbeating striker only beginning to realise his powers. Let's start with a quick summary of Haaland's career. One thing you'll notice is that the kid scores a lot of goals...
2000 - 2020
2000: Haaland is born
2004: Haaland moves from Leeds to Bryne in Norway
2005: Haaland starts playing for Bryne academy. His youth coach reports that “his first two touches led to goals”
2015: a 15 year old Haaland begins playing for Bryne’s second senior team: 18 goals in 14 games.
2016: 3 months before turning 16, Haaland begins playing for the first team in Bryne.
2017: Haaland signs for Molde FK to play under OGS. He makes his league debute in June, receiving a yellow card within 65 seconds and scoring a goal after 7 minutes.
2018: Haaland scores a hatrick against Scotland to secure Euro U19 qualification for Norway U19. His standout performance of the year was his performance against SK Brann where he scored 4 goals in 21 minutes.
2019: Haaland joins RB Salzburg and scores a hattrick in his UCL debut. In a record breaking performance, Haaland scores nine goals in one game at the U20 World Cup. Despite only scoring in one game, Haaland earns the golden boot. A senior call up and cap shortly follow.
2020: This has been Haaland's biggest year yet, culminating in receiving the Golden Boy award. It all starts with a move to Borussia Dortmund for an estimated 20 million euros. Haaland's 2020 achievements include:
Scores a hatrick in 23 minutes on his debut for Dortmund
Becomes the first player in bundesliga history to score 5 goals in 2 games. He's the fastest to five goals: it only takes him 56 minutes
Scores 2 goals in a first leg round of 16 victory against PSG. Dortmund are later knocked out
Scores the first goal since german football was postponed in March due to the coronavius pandemic
Scores his first international goal against austria. He shortly scores his first international hattrick against Romania
Scores 4 goals in 32 minutes against Hertha BSC
Becomes the fastest player to reach 15 champions league goals (actually scores 16) in 12 appearances
What became of the golden boys?
A Golden Boy award is really just a good omen, a projection of where their career might take them. It's like the journalists that vote on the award are betting on which wonderkid will have the most successful career.
Sometimes the crystal ball is murky. You get players that start out strong and plateau, whilst other players develop their talents later. Some young players aren't noticed. I've defined some markers of a successful football career that I think are pretty uncontroversial. The below illustrates how many Golden Boys achieved the accomplishments listed.
Golden Boy Career Accomplishments
The main takeaway here is that success in football is hard to come by, even with the Golden Boy stamp. Based on the successes of the Golden Boys that came before him, it's likely that Haaland will win a league title in one of the big five leagues. The other accomplishments will be quite a challenge, particularly for Haaland, who plays for the trophyless Norway national team. If Haaland can take a club to UCL victory, it will place him in the upper echelons of Golden Boys. In pursuit of these titles, many suspect Haaland will leave Dortmund, who remain underdogs both in Germany and in Europe.
Just for clarity, it is worth mentioning that the 3 players that have won none of the major accomplishments listed are all still playing football: Martial, Félix, and Haaland himself. By the time they retire, it is likely that they will have won at least a big 5 league title.
The Gen Z Race: can Haaland catch Mbappé?
Mbappé's pretty speedy. He was the fastest player in the 2019/20 UCL with a top sprint speed of 33.98 km/h. Haaland was the ninth quickest, peaking at 33.02 km/h.
He's also the frontrunner to inherit the throne.
The current holders of the throne need no introduction. One of them is Platinum Boy, Leo Messi. The other, Cristiano Ronaldo, never won Golden Boy, but does have 5 Ballon d'Or awards and 4 Champions League winner medals, so I'm sure he doesn't mind missing out on this particular prize. These two living legends have formed a duopoly for well over a decade, embedded within two of the most successful European clubs of the 21st century. Messi and Ronaldo have had almost perfect football careers.
For both of them, their bulging trophy shelves are missing one thing. That thing, the World Cup, was most recently won by a teenager. At his first international tournament, Kylian achieved what they couldn't and he did so as an integral member of his national team. He scored 4 goals, including one in the final.
There is now increasing buzz that Mbappé and Haaland could become the next great duopoly. These two faced each other for the first time in the Champions League last season. The first leg was won by Dortmund and, crucially, Haaland - he got a brace. The second leg cinched it for PSG, who went through on away goals. This close matchup is symbolic of the intense competition we hope to see between these two Golden Boys.
UCL 2019/20 Performance
Source: UEFA UCL 2019/20 Technical Report
Looking at their tournament stats reveals a few differences between the two players. Haaland appears to be the more clinical finisher, substantially outscoring his xG, whilst Mbappé's assists indicate that he is more involved in build up play. These differing strengths will likely form a point of contention when the relative merits of these two are debated. It will be interesting to see if Haaland becomes more involved in build up play as his career progresses.
For now, Mbappé is still a few years and a couple of Ligue 1 titles ahead of Haaland. Here are their all time club goals.
Club Goals (as of December 2020)
The Platinum Standard
There's a new Golden Boy every year. Besides the one lucky winner, there will be several other young players making an impact in elite football that could have won Golden Boy. In this sense, the Golden standard is relatively common. The Platinum Standard, however, is more rare. Not every cohort has a Platinum Boy.
Having discussed the electric start to Haaland's career, it's worth taking a second to acknowledge just how exceptional the achievements of Ronaldo and Messi are. These two players have been at the top for such a long time that I can't remember football without them. The below graph plots their scoring stats. You'll see two players that have been going at it for well over a decade and that are showing few signs of slowing down. I think that their longevity is really the defining feature of their excellence. This is the Platinum Standard that Haaland will need to aim for. Having one exceptional goalscoring season is one thing, but ten plus in a row really sets the Platinum Boys apart from the Golden Boys.
Club Goals by Season (All Competitions)
Looking at this graph, there are two key points to notice. Haaland's ascent is rapid, even compared to the greatest. Haaland scored over 40 goals last season, the year he turned 20. The season Ronaldo turned 20, he scored 9 club goals. The season Messi turned 20, he scored 17 club goals. A young striker this prolific is worth paying attention to. You also might notice that something special happened last season. At club level, Haaland outscored them all: the two kings and the heir in waiting. He's already got 17 goals this season. It's no guaranteed thing, but there is some small indication here of a player that might inherit the throne.