In sports, you often hear good players’ skills referred to as “scary,” or that the image of them charging down the court or field, about to do the thing that makes them so good, fills those tasked with trying to stop that thing from happening with “terror” or “dread.” This fear-based language is a little bit literal and a little bit metaphorical. The worry about being overmatched and losing or looking bad is real, but in most non-combat sports, there’s usually little actual, physical danger. On Wednesday, though, Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland struck what had to have been literal fear in the defense of Sevilla, Dortmund’s Champions League opponent, so much so that at one point, a Sevilla defender got so afraid of getting too close to the Norwegian that he ran away for dear life.
As you can see in the video above, the fraidy-cat in question was Sevilla center back Diego Carlos, who is normally a very good defender when he’s not in a state of sheer panic staring down an onrushing Mack truck. Before the play—which ended with Haaland’s first of what would be two goals in his stunningly dominant performance to secure Dortmund a 3–2 away victory—even really got started, Diego Carlos had reason to be wary of where things might go.
Haaland had dropped quickly from Sevilla’s back line in order to receive the pass that started the move. Haaland’s dropping movement was too quick for Diego Carlos to keep up with, so when the ball came to Haaland’s feet, the Brazilian defender was already in no-man’s-land: too far away to try to bump Haaland off the ball to make his control, turn, or release difficult, and yet still somehow not nearly far enough away to give himself a big enough cushion should Haaland turn, set course for Sevilla’s penalty area, and step on the gas. Mind you, this all happened with Haaland just a couple yards past the halfway line, and with Diego Carlos a couple yards deeper still. Yet even that far away from goal, Diego Carlos was already absolutely terrified, knowing the penalty box is never truly far away for a player with Haaland’s speed. And so Diego Carlos did what many do when afraid: he turned his back and ran.
As uncommon (and as embarrassing) an image as it is to see a defender with lots of space between himself and a ball carrier and think By God, I’m way too close to this guy, I must flee even further! as he fully turns away and sprints, it’s also a totally understandable response to the impossible task of defending Haaland. He is, after all, a uniquely lethal weapon because of his unreal speed and power, and his brilliant way of maximizing them with his movement.
There really is no foolproof way to stop him. Get too close and Haaland will either blow past in a single step, or, as happened on Mahmoud Dahoud’s Haaland-assisted wonderstrike, will out-muscle you and use his rapidly developing hold-up skills to find a wide open teammate in great position. Get too far, as Diego Carlos did, and he’ll just gobble up all that free terrain, and the moment you need to finally step up and confront him, he’ll still just run or pass past you and get into shooting position. Sevilla tried it all, and none of it worked, because the only sound defense against this generationally freakish talent is to pray he has an off day.
After the game, Haaland gave credit to Kylian Mbappé for giving him additional inspiration thanks to the Frenchman’s own monstrous performance the day before. “When I saw Mbappé scored a hat trick yesterday I got free motivation, so thanks to him, and yeah, it was a nice evening.” Mbappé and Haaland are the two best bets to become the leading stars of the next generation as the Messi-Ronaldo one ages out. If this week is any indication, the future will be absolutely, delightfully terrifying.