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Erling Haaland.
Erling Haaland.
Image: PA

Will the gamble of buying Erling Haaland backfire for Man City?

The Norwegian striker is unlike any other forwards City have signed,
Aug 5th 2022, 7:00 AM 25,737 24

Updated Aug 5th 2022, 12:53 PM

THE LATEST STORYLINE bubbling to the surface in the Premier League drama is the archetypal throwing together of diametrically opposed characters, to see whether they can overcome each other’s differences and come to rely on each other. Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are twins? Pep Guardiola and Erling Haaland are working together? 

How Haaland and City adapt to one another is one of the most fascinating sub-plots of the season and, if Liverpool can keep up the relentless pace of their pursuit, could decide the title’s destination. 

On the surface, Haaland’s signing for Manchester City is a no-brainer. Here’s a 22-year-old seemingly destined to become one of the game’s great players, with both an affordable release clause and a genuine link to the club’s history, which has been almost entirely detached from present-day successes. His age and quality might also work as a bulwark against Guardiola’s exit: why need to find a successor with such an intricate, brilliant plan when Haaland can just larrup the ball into the net once a game? 

But Guardiola is still manically moving the chess figures around board and Haaland will have to become just another player subsumed beneath his manager’s giant, pulsing brain.

Here’s where signing Haaland and selling Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus becomes a curious kind of risk for Manchester City. Neither of those players added any friction to Guardiola’s slickly whirring City machine, but will the same be said of Haaland? 

The first issue will be one of personality. Haaland grew up styling himself on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Guardiola’s highest-profile flop. The pair spoke twice in the player’s final six months at Barcelona, with the individualistic Ibrahimovic at odds with Guardiola’s collectivist ethos. (When Guardiola banned the players from driving their sports cars to training, Ibrahimovic turned up in a Ferrari.)

“I’d already got the impression that Barcelona was a little like being back at school”, wrote Zlatan later. “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang — they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous.”

Haaland hasn’t exhibited many of Zlatan’s disruptive traits in his short career so far, however, and he changed his childhood idol to Sergio Aguero when speaking at his City unveiling. (Though perhaps he was merely playing to the crowd.)

More relevant is the question of style. Haaland is an out-and-out centre-forward, a position historically treated by Guardiola with thinly-veiled contempt.

Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus, and Raheem Sterling were the most frequent selections at centre-forward for City last season, and all played a totally different style to Haaland. 

The most obvious difference is that Haaland scores far more often. He averaged 1.04 goals per game last season, which was almost twice as good as Sterling (0.55 per game) and miles better than Jesus or Foden. (0.33 per game each.)

Haaland has been bought to add some penalty-box ruthlessness, something City have missed in their series of hysterical Champions League exits in recent seasons. Haaland significantly out-performed his Expected Goals tally last season (he averaged 0.83 xG per game) whereas the aforementioned City trio outperformed theirs more modestly. 

But for what Haaland will add in end product, will City lose in all-round build-up play? The glaring chances that Sterling in particular was so prone to miss would likely be finished by Haaland, but would those chances be created as often without a centre-forward adept at the architecture of these moves? 

Haaland scores more often than any of his City predecessors, but he also does much less on the pitch. He averaged 33.7 touches per game last season, far less than Jesus (49.4), Foden (56.2), and Sterling (50.9.) He also averaged half as many passes per game as either Jesus or Sterling.  

pep-guardiola-file-photo Source: PA

Given he’s played for the Red Bull group and then in the Bundesliga, pressing out of possession should be less of an issue: Haaland’s average of 12.8 pressures per game last season was only slightly fewer than Jesus (14.1) and Sterling (13.4). (Foden was well out in front here, with 17.4 per game, though that figure is skewed slightly by the fact he played in midfield, and thus closer to opposition players, more often than the others.) 

There is a further question for City: how to get the ball to him? Guardiola is a cautious manager, though has redefined pragmatism in English football by denying the opposition the ball, rather than space. His players are intricately, obsessively coached to take up certain positions on the pitch relative to where the ball is, and they move in response to where the ball moves. 

This is a precise and controlled choreography, and it’s why Guardiola hates long balls: the further the ball travels, the larger the gaps are in his team, and thus the more easily they are exposed. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that City have averaged more passes per game than any other side in Europe’s top five leagues over the last four seasons, but Guardiola’s style is borne out by how few of these are through passes. The types of passes off which Haaland thrives. 

PSG, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon, and Barcelona all averaged more through passes per game last season than City, and they were tenth in the same ranking the season before that.

Dortmund, meanwhile, were 26th in Europe in the same ranking, and leaped to ninth and then fifth in their two full seasons with Haaland in their team. Their style lent itself to Haaland fitting snugly in the side, but the same can’t be said of City. 

Haaland may prove to be a total success, but City are undoubtedly fiddling with Guardiola’s nigh-impeccable creation.

The fact City’s closest rivals have signed a guy called Darwin may be an unsubtle reminder that evolution is necessary, but given that the bar of competition is so high, and the margins of success so small, Haaland’s inculcation is a gamble for this season at least. 

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