Norway’s hopes of automatic qualification for Euro 2024 were ended by Spain on October 15. In truth, though, the fatal blow was delivered four months previously. On June 17, Norway suffered a 2-1 loss at home to Scotland from which they never really recovered.
The date of the game was hugely significant because it arrived just one week after the Champions League final in Istanbul, where Manchester City clinched a historic treble with a 1-0 victory over Inter. It was an achievement that sparked wild celebrations among Pep Guardiola’s squad, and Erling Haaland played a full part in the festivities.
He was well within his rights to do that, too. Haaland had played a pivotal part in the treble, breaking the Premier League single-season goals record and finishing as the Champions League’s top scorer. But the Norwegian is renowned for his maturity and professionalism, so he was never going to go ‘full Jack Grealish’ on a party that started in Turkey and ended in England – but featured a quick trip to Ibiza in between.
So, while Scotland assistant coach John Carver quipped ahead of the crunch Group A clash in Oslo that he hoped Haaland was “still partying”, Norway boss Stale Solbakken had no concerns over his main man turning up for a vital qualifier worse for wear.
No need for ‘an Al Pacino speech’
“I don’t know how much Coke or beer he has drunk,” the Norway boss said, smiling. “It is important that he gets a rest and gets over both the euphoria and the feeling that you have done something big together with your team-mates over 10 to 11 months. “Then you must be allowed to relax a bit, for 48 hours or however long it takes. It won’t be like I go into his room and give an Al Pacino speech to get him started on Saturday. It’s about common sense. Rest, sleep and tactical training.
“I have to respect that we may have to add a slightly different twist to Saturday than with another player, considering what he has been through. It’s not like he can’t participate in tactical training, or that he can’t stay awake at tactical meetings. He must be honest about how he feels. How affected and tired are you mentally and physically? How quickly can you process these impressions? I have no doubt that he can do it.”
It quickly became clear, though, that two days of raucous celebrations had done nothing to help Haaland shake off the mental and physical effects of a 53-game season at City, which, it has to be said, was starting to take its toll on the 23-year-old – who scored once in his final eight appearances in all competitions – long before the conclusion of the campaign.
‘We played with one less man’
Haaland recently claimed that during the long spells in which he barely touches the ball during City’s patient and prolonged build-up play, he often enters into a trance-like state. “I am just kind of walking around, standing up there, making movements in my own world and not kind of… It’s difficult to explain,” he admitted to The Telegraph last month. “I go out of my body and become a zombie. It’s kind of a bit of a ‘zone out’. Like looking around. Waiting for the chance. And when the chance comes I know I have to be ready, you know?”
Unfortunately, for Norway, that’s exactly how he played against Scotland – like a zombie.
After kicking off their qualification campaign with a 3-0 loss in Spain and a desperately disappointing 1-1 draw with Georgia, Norway desperately need to beat an-inform Scotland side, and Haaland gave them a deserved lead with a 61st-minute penalty.
Something wasn’t right, though. It wasn’t just the lack of involvement; there was a worrying lack of sharpness about the deadliest striker in the game today. And the longer the game went on, the worse it got. Haaland was quite clearly spent, and he knew it too. He asked to be substituted and Solbakken had no hesitation about replacing his star striker with six minutes of normal time remaining.
As the manager told reporters after the game, “In the last few minutes Erling was on the field, we played with one less man. He was completely empty. He had run out of steam.” Scotland hadn’t, though. Lyndon Dykes equalised three minutes after Haaland’s withdrawal, and then the Scots struck again almost immediately, with Kenny McLean’s match-winner silencing the Ullevaal Stadion.
‘Let your feet do the talking’
A state of shock soon gave way to outbursts of anger – and Haaland was the target. Instead of stopping to acknowledge Norway supporters outside the arena after the game, the forward made a beeline for the team bus, refusing to take selfies or sign autographs. Many fans were furious and booed a player they had been cheering moments before.
Such a reaction may surprise some outsiders, but Haaland’s behaviour and attitude, on and off the field, has caused concern in the past. Travelling home for international camps via private jet may not be uncommon these days, certainly among the game’s true superstars, but it’s never gone over particularly well in Haaland’s native Norway, where it is perceived as both a lack of humility – and a lack of concern for the environment.
Then, there’s the fact that Haaland hasn’t always been as willing to speak to his compatriots as the international press. Indeed, after Solbakken ceded to Haaland’s request to be excused from media duties in March 2022, the attacker explained on Twitter that he was merely following the advice of a farmer who had told him to “let your feet do the talking”.
‘I’m not saying he’s disinterested but…’
Still, Haaland’s willingness to embrace such a tried-and-trusted mantra for high-profile players could arguably be attributed to the harsh criticism he sometimes comes in for when things don’t go well for Norway. For example, after a 3-0 loss at home to Turkey in March 2021, two former internationals, John Arne Riise and Bernt Hulsker, suggested that Haaland didn’t seem to care as much about playing for his country as his club.
“He has received so much praise for showing his emotion when things aren’t going well with Dortmund,” Riise told VG, “but we don’t see any of that back here.” Hulsker was even more scathing in his appraisal of Haaland’s subdued showing: “It was just surrender. I’m not saying he’s disinterested, but he exudes it.”
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that Haaland has somehow become a problem for Norway. The Scandinavians are undeniably blessed to have him. “Haaland massively improves Norway,” former Manchester United centre-back Henning Berg told The National. “He can score from anywhere and with few chances, his physicality is a threat. Norway with Haaland is completely different to Norway without. He can always get goals, even against the best.”
What Norway still have to figure out, as Martin Odegaard put it, is “how to use him better”, and while the Arsenal attacking midfielder obviously has a key role to play in that regard, both as a provider and national-team captain, the main responsibility lies with Solbakken.
Help on the way for Haaland?
Haaland has netted six times in qualifying, but five of those goals came in games against Georgia and Cyprus. Norway proved utterly incapable of getting the ball to him in the matches that mattered most.
For example, in last month’s must-win meeting with Spain, Haaland only had 17 touches – fewer than any other player that started the game. Such a stat obviously wouldn’t be a concern for City, who only really require Haaland to finish off their meticulously crafted attacks, but Norway need Haaland far more involved.
Dani Carvajal even pointed out that one of the keys to Spain’s success in Oslo was defenders applying intense pressure to Haaland each and every time he received the ball. By doing that, they effectively nullified Norway’s entire attacking threat.
Solbakken firmly believes that positive steps are being taken, that the team’s game is both evolving and improving. He can also point to the emergence of a couple of very exciting attackers in Antonio Nusa (18) and Oscar Bobb (20), who should create plenty of chances for Haaland in the years to come.
By contrast, the porous nature of the defence is a serious cause for concern. Spain and Scotland have only conceded three goals apiece in Group A; Norway have shipped nine. Leo Ostigard may have belatedly become something resembling a regular at Napoli this season, but not enough members of the Norwegian backline are playing consistently at the very highest level of European football. The fact that the 33-year-old Valerenga centre-back Stefan Standberg remains the best option alongside Ostigard tells you everything you need to know about the lack of defensive depth.
‘It’s a long-term project’
If Solbakken can sort out – and eventually strengthen – the brittle defence, there are grounds for optimism that Norway might soon have a more balanced starting line-up, one more befitting the best striker in the world.
They certainly proved competitive for long periods of their two meetings with Spain, and Lise Klaveness, the president of the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF), is adamant that Solbakken is still the right man for the job. According to Klaveness, neither she nor any of her colleagues were under any illusions about the scale of the task. Qualification for Euro 2024 was a hope but never an expectation for a nation of just over five million people that hasn’t qualified for a major international tournament since 2000.
“We stand by Stale,” she said in October. “It’s a long-term plan. I must be absolutely clear that we extended with Stale at a time when it was already a bit uncertain. We had taken one point against Georgia away, zero points against Spain, but we have full confidence in him. We knew what we were doing when we gave him a new contract because we didn’t believe, and I still don’t believe, that we would be in a better place with another coach. I think he is the right person to take this project forward. That is still my strong opinion, and he still has the board’s trust.
“Of course we are disappointed over the qualifiers as a whole. We have actually played some very good matches – away against Spain, for example. But we know the Scotland game was decisive. We were very good until the last five minutes. That was a massive disappointment.” But one from which Norway need to move on.
Their dream of qualifying for Euro 2024 ended on November 18 with confirmation that they wouldn’t make the play-offs. Thus, victory over Scotland on Sunday won’t do anything to boost their chances of making it to Germany next summer, but it will at least provide some much-needed evidence that Norway are moving in the right direction under Solbakken – and that Haaland might one day grace one of the international game’s grandest stages.