Alexander Sørloth: the making of the King in the North

Alexander Sørloth: the making of the King in the North

There is a break in play. The Lerkendal, far from capacity for the visit of NIFL Premiership side Crusaders, is a hush of quiet murmurs as Rosenborg Ballklub prepare to make a change. They are 5-1 up in the second leg of this qualifying round for the 2013 Europa League. Overhead, the evening sun peers out from behind scuttling clouds kindled to gold, and though sunset is still several hours distant, the game unfolding below is already entering its twilight. 

An hour on the clock, manager Åge Hareide ushers onto the field a figure recognisable to most RBK supporters perhaps not in appearance but by name. Alexander Sørloth, the son of legendary striker Gøran, is granted his debut at the tender age of 17. 

Unlike his father, who cut a stockier and more muscular figure during his illustrious playing days, Alexander is gangly and awkward at first glance. Jogging onto the pitch in a shirt bearing the number 37, he assumes his role at the sharp end of a Rosenborg side that has already plundered five goals this evening. 

A prolific marksman in the youth ranks of his hometown club, Alexander Sørloth doesn’t have to wait long for his chance. The shadows inside the ground have barely lengthened before the ball drops to the young striker and he dispatches his first goal for the club to which his surname is inextricably entwined. Rosenborg run out 7-2 winners – 9-3 on aggregate – and secure their passage into the next qualifying round. 

Though Sørloth clinched his goal in the soft sun of a balmy summer evening, night would soon fall on his career with the club. His strike against Crusaders was to be his only goal in seven professional outings, as some pondered whether the young forward would make it at the top level. 

Lifelong Rosenborg fan Magnus Solemsli told These Football Times, “I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I didn’t see him becoming a top goalscorer when he was at RBK. There were some who saw his potential, but even among those who had seen a lot of the games he played for the youth team in 2012/13, there wasn’t a unanimous belief in his ability. I really didn’t see him joining a top team in one of Europe’s top leagues.”

It was an inconspicuous start for a man who would, barely eight years later, command the attention of a host of top clubs across Europe, come to form one-half of Norway’s most potent forward line in a generation and assume the moniker “The King in the North”. 

Football is a sport that has always been obsessed with vogues; some are fleeting, while others endure, but as all of them surely dawn, so too do they all face their dusk. As of the last 12 months, it is the sparsely-populated Scandinavian nation of Norway, which once commanded a spot in the world rankings as high as second during its halcyon days of the 1990s, that has become the shopping destination of Europe’s elite and most fashionable football clubs. 

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Like their Swedish neighbours’ most renowned global export, Norway has assumed the mantle of the Ikea of the footballing world, assembling for easy use the most versatile, durable and affordable products Europe has to offer. It is the result of a nearly decade-long travail, during which time the number of professional coaches in the country has soared, while the advent of advanced synthetic pitches has allowed youth football to take place all year round and not only in the milder summer months. 

Out of this Norse renaissance has emerged some of the finest talent Norway has produced in a generation. Erling Braut Haaland (Borussia Dortmund), Martin Ødegaard (Real Madrid), Sander Berge (Sheffield United), Jens Petter Hauge (AC Milan) and, last but by no means least, Alexander Sørloth (RB Leipzig), all ply their trade across the continent’s top five leagues. Youthful, dynamic and burgeoning with talent, this crop of young footballers is expected to carry their nation to its first appearance at an international tournament since Euro 2000. 

Of them all, it is Erling, the son of former Leeds and Manchester City centre-back Alfie Inge Haaland, who has reaped the most plaudits following a scintillating breakout season in 2019/20 whereby he had plundered 44 goals before he’d even left his teens.

Such was his frankly stratospheric rise from Bryn in Norway’s 1. divisjon to Borussia Dortmund and the Champions League that scouts across Europe have been searching for the next Erling Haaland throughout every inch of Norway, from its rugged western coastline riddled with deep, still fjords to its frigid northern fences where snow-clad peaks rise from the sparse tundra like the bones of some ancient fallen giant. 

RB Leipzig, however, needed to look to warmer climes for the man they sought to replace the inimitable Timo Werner who departed the club over the summer for Chelsea. On 22 September, two days after the Bundesliga began again in earnest following an unprecedented year given the COVID-19 pandemic, RB Leipzig completed the signing of Crystal Palace centre-forward Alexander Sørloth for a fee in the region of €22m – a move which raised more than a few eyebrows. 

Strike partner to Haaland in the national team, the 24-year-old forward joined the divisive German outfit to a rapturous reception from sporting director Markus Krösche. “We’ve signed our number one candidate. He’s a physical and technical player, who’s strong in the air and a good finisher. He had a fantastic season in Turkey, where he showed himself to be both a goalscorer and provider. He has all the attributes you need as a footballer.”

On loan at Trabzonspor from Crystal Palace, Sørloth enjoyed a stellar 2019/20 season both domestically and in Europe, where he helped himself to 34 goals, eight assists and guided his club to their first piece of silverware in a decade in the form of the Turkish Cup. 

It was in stark contrast to the wretched tenure he endured in south London with Palace, who had signed him from Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland in 2017. During a torrid 18 months, Sørloth laboured to a single goal in 20 fleeting appearances and was given scant opportunities to demonstrate his potential in a toiling Palace side in desperate need of immediate returns.

Scathing reviews of his performances followed, as English football pundits duly decried the Norwegian as being unable to cope with the physical and mental demands of the Premier League. It was, as his father Gøran explained, a testing time for the youngster. “They were tough times, he had a hard time in the Premier League and had to deal with a lot. It was difficult coping with what happened and overcoming the effect is has on your confidence.

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“He showed great mental strength to go to Trabzonspor and what he has pulled off in Turkey is incredible. Trabzonspor has been great for him, they are a fantastic club and have shown a lot of support.”

In his solitary season in Turkey, Sørloth managed to demonstrate why he is held in such high regard in his homeland by returning to the trade that had forged him a career in the sport in the first place: scoring goals. A quick perusal of the giant Norwegian’s career statistics portray a puzzling picture, for his goalscoring exploits have occurred in fits and starts; profligate at Groningen and Crystal Palace, yet clinical in Denmark, Turkey and in the royal red of Norway. 

However, the root of his goalscoring talents can be found not in Trondheim and with Rosenborg, the club where he developed as a young footballer, but 436 miles north in the town of Bodø, and a loan spell in the 2015 season. 

When an inexperienced young Sørloth made the long trip north from his home in Trondheim, he arrived at a football club looking to re-establish themselves in the Eliteserien following a five-year absence. Bodø/Glimt’s aspirations were, in stark contrast to their current form, decidedly more grounded. After finishing one place above the relegation zone and having conceded a league-high 60 goals in 2014, confidence around the club was fragile.

Matters were further compounded when their top scorer over the previous two seasons, Ibba Laajab, was sold to Chinese side Hebei China Fortune. In losing 32 goals before the season had even begun, the club faced the prospect of a daunting campaign ahead. 

As Glimt fan Jonas Wenberg explained, “Sørloth arrived at Glimt as a pretty untested player and was brought in to Glimt to compete for the number 9 spot with Ibba Laajab. However, he [Laajab] was sold to China shortly after Sørloth arrived. Ibba had been very good for Glimt and few people believed that Sørloth could replace his 13 goals the season prior.

“Glimt at the time played a deep-lying 4-3-3 setup which we had used since the 90s, and playing up front was a very lonely job. We usually relied on large, bulky strikers, and while Alex certainly was tall, he lacked a bit in strength. He was therefore only used as a sub, even losing his spot at one point to Fitim Azemi.”

Sørloth’s inconspicuous start was mirrored by the club’s performances on the field. Winless in their first eight games, Glimt were rooted to the foot of the table. Sørloth himself had done little to assuage fears that Laajab’s departure would cripple the side. By the end of May, the young striker had only accrued 135 minutes on the pitch across several uneventful substitute appearances and remained ominously goalless. 

The feeling around the club at the time was gloomy, as Glimt fans wondered if they had been duped by what they perceived as the bully boys of Rosenborg who had loaned them a dud. Fiercely proud of their club, supporters questioned why they should have a failed RBK player amongst their ranks; they were not here to do other clubs favours. 

“Rosenborg has never been good at giving their talents a lot of games,” mused Glimt supporter Andreas Trolid. “Rosenborg have sent Glimt players before and either bought them back or stolen them, but we have always been good at developing young players, especially strikers.”

Duly, Sørloth soon underwent a transformation from rangy forward struggling to hold down a starting berth to a powerful focal point whose goals ensured Glimt not only survived in Norway’s top-flight, but attained a respectable mid-table finish.

Having floated around on left and right wing, Sørloth was shifted to the striker role where he grew into his wiry frame, learning how to use his size to fend off wily and more experienced veterans of the Eliteserien. After a selfless performance playing his preferred number 9 spot during a 5-1 hammering of Mjondalen, he broke into the starting line-up and never looked back.

Despite his first seven appearances as a substitute rendering him without a goal or an assist to his name, Sørloth, now insuperable with this newfound confidence that seemed to permeate the squad around him, dragged Glimt from the foot of the table with 13 goals and five assists in his next 19 starts. Four goals during a 5-1 demolition of Start hoisted Glimt into eighth place, while goals against Vålerenga, Haugesund, Sarpsborg 08 and a strike against bitter rivals Tromsø only further endeared the young striker to the terrace faithful. 

In their hearts, though, Glimt fans knew their dalliance with Sørloth was not destined to endure, as Trolid recalled, “He was a beast and I remember an away game against Vålerenga where he was immense! We were sad to him go. I am not surprised to see him in Germany, because mentally he is on another level.”

It is a sentiment shared by fellow Glimt supporter Wenberg. “He took major steps as a player that year, from a lanky youth mostly used as an impact sub, to absolutely dominating weaker defenders. Even RBK didn’t renew the loan for the next season. I had no doubt that he had the potential to fight for a spot on the national team [in the future].”

On the final day of the season, with Glimt ensconced safely in mid-table, Sørloth left them with a departing gift in the form of a well-taken hat-trick against third-placed Stabæk. In doing so, he became the second Sørloth to register a hat-trick in the Norwegian top flight after his father, Gøran, had done so for Rosenborg in 1991 and 1992. 

Despite his successes in the north of Norway, upon his return to his home in Trondheim, Sørloth found himself on the move once more, as Rosenborg accepted an offer from Eredivisie side Groningen for their young striker’s services. 

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Rosenborg fan Solemsli recounted the turn of events. “When Groningen came and offered NOK 6-7 million [approximately £5m], it felt like a good deal for us and a good deal for him. He didn’t want to stay as back up for Søderlund, who had scored 22 goals that season, and then I think a lot of people felt like cashing in on him was the right thing to do.”

Given that Sørloth is now a regular in the Norway national set-up, with seven goals in his last ten caps, it is a decision that Solemsli believes Rosenborg have slowly come perhaps not to rue but at least wonder what could have been. Patently too good to remain in the Norwegian top division, and with league champions Rosenborg – who qualified for Europe, too – unwilling to guarantee him a starting berth, Sørloth chose to venture onto the continent.  

Yet, unlike Haaland, who departed Molde and began scoring in earnest for RB Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga, Sørloth’s exploits across Europe have been greeted with something of a polarising reception. 

Though he has enjoyed regular game time for his nation since his debut in 2016 – where he scored against Euro 2016 plunderers Iceland – his reputation on the continent has undulated. A two-year spell with Groningen was largely considered underwhelming, but his six-month tenure in the Danish Superliga with Midtjylland garnered 14 goals and eight assists from only 19 starts. 

Like a guttering candle, the promise that Glimt fans had glimpsed so tantalisingly during his year-long sojourn in Bodø has taken time to grow in warmth and brightness. It has, as the Twitter account Norwegian Football (@NORftbl) points out, shone brightest when tended to by diligent hands. 

While at Midtjylland, Sørloth was installed as the main striker in a title-winning side that created chances aplenty, and the same was true of his time with Trabzonspor, who finished runners-up in the Süper Lig by virtue of constructing their attacking intents around their powerful Norwegian forward. 

Conversely, the flickering flame of Sørloth’s ambitions were almost extinguished during his ill-fated 18-month stay in south London. In fact, Palace’s capture of the nascent Sørloth served not only as a timely reminder of the gulf in quality between leagues across a relatively small and compact continent, but also of the many perils a young footballer can face in traversing them. 

Consigned largely to the bench to make but a handful of fleeting substitute appearances, Sørloth struggled for goals and confidence. This spell was to further compound what was becoming an increasingly divided opinion surrounding the big Norwegian striker. Glimt and Trabzonspor fans hold him in high regard, while Groningen and Crystal Palace fans are, at best, sceptical when it comes to his talents.

Thus, when it comes to RB Leipzig’s new striker, it would be prudent to appraise the man, the footballer himself, with a degree of objectivity, free from the opposing biases between which opinion seems to pendulum.

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Sørloth is a striker who has always performed when given a consistent run and, crucially, when supplied with consistent service. During his scant opportunities at Rosenborg and his fleeting substitute appearances at Groningen and Palace, he was unable to exhibit the goalscoring instincts that had seen him excel at Glimt, Midtjylland and later at Trabzonspor. 

As such, entering that grey realm between being a young footballer and a player in their prime years, Sørloth is possessed of many of the attributes that comprise the modern centre-forward: athleticism, sharp movement and a proclivity for scoring a variety of goals. Standing at six-foot-four and with a powerful, athletic physique, he harkens back to the Scandinavian archetypes of yore, but his game revolves around much more than his fearsome strength, much like those of yesteryear.

Having honed his skills throughout his travels, Sørloth has developed into a striker that is comfortable playing with his back to goal while also making runs into the channels. At both club and domestic level, his size belies his ability with the ball at his feet, for he averages nearly three dribbles a game, often when drifting out to the flanks to prey on smaller, less robust full-backs before bringing the ball infield. 

By no means a wide forward, as Crystal Palace learned to their detriment, he is surprisingly astute at dribbling in wide areas, but Sørloth truly excels in the physical role of the target man. Since 2017, he has averaged four successful aerial duels per game, as teams seek to use him as a powerful out-ball. 

In modern football, with its aversion to two centre-forwards, leading the line can be a lonely endeavour. Sørloth thrives at this, bringing in other attacking players around him. His adroitness at fashioning flick-ons has seen the much faster Haaland preying on long balls from Rune Jarstein for the Norwegian national side, as the latter recognises the frequency with which his powerful striker partner will defeat his marker. He is, as @NORftbl succinctly summarises, “Simply a monster in the air.”   

As such, Sørloth has grown accustomed to becoming a provider as well as a finisher. His eight assists for Trabzonspor, as well as the brace he registered for Norway in their recent Nations League fixtures, point to a man who can play the supporting role, bringing others into play and finding the final ball, much like his father during his time at Rosenborg in the mid-to-late 1980s. 

Helped by the surge of interest that has engulfed Norwegian football in recent months, it has taken time, but Sørloth, at last, seems as primed as ever to repay the faith first shown in him since his formative years in Norway. After stumbles and pitfalls, and having shrugged off the scepticism that has dogged some of his wayward steps, a top team in a top league has seen fit to put their faith in a man for whom goals are his primary currency. 

Eight years since he made his debut as a gangly teenager in the evening sun of a Norwegian summer, it seems as though winter is finally coming for the King in the North. 

By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90

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