MANCHESTER, England — Erling Haaland is the best player in the world right now, and he has transformed Manchester City from a great team into one that is capable of blowing everyone else away this season.
Just ask Manchester United, beaten 6-3 at the Etihad on Sunday, following another Haaland hat trick for Pep Guardiola’s team.
Phil Foden also scored a hat trick on a remarkable day for City, but the star of the show once again was Haaland, the £51 million summer signing from Borussia Dortmund, who is rampaging through Premier League defences like a teenager playing against 9-year-olds.
The 22-year-old Haaland has 14 goals in the Premier League this season — more goals than 14 other teams in the league — and 17 goals in 11 games across all competitions for City. That includes hat tricks in successive home games against Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and now United.
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Just to underscore how much of an impact Haaland has made so far in a City shirt, he can now claim to have scored as many Premier League hat tricks — three — as Cristiano Ronaldo. Haaland has pulled level with the United forward after just eight games.
Michael Owen had been the quickest player to score three Premier League hat tricks. He took 48 games for Liverpool to bag his third, so Haaland is simply obliterating records that had been expected to stand for decades.
There was something poignant about the fact that Ronaldo spent the full 90 minutes on the United substitutes’ bench as Haaland tore his team apart. Ronaldo has been at the summit of the world game for over a decade, sharing the billing as the world’s best player with Lionel Messi throughout that period — but the 37-year-old will now know that the baton has firmly passed to Haaland after watching him up close at the Etihad.
“What Erling is doing, he has done in Norway, Austria and Germany, that’s the reality,” City manager Guardiola said. “With the quality we have alongside him, it helps him score goals.
“What he has done — how he scores, how he moves, his incredible instinct to know when the ball is coming — I have never taught him anything. He got all that from his parents.
“I have had incredible centre-forwards in my career, but what I like about Erling is that even in the end of the game, he is still involved and wants to be part of the situation. But his talent is to put the ball in the back of the net — he is a fantastic, fantastic striker.”
Kylian Mbappe is perhaps the only footballer who could argue that he should be placed higher than Haaland as the best in the world, but the France forward has only — only — managed 11 goals in 10 games for Paris Saint-Germain this season. His numbers pale into insignificance when compared with Haaland’s.
Haaland and Mbappe are going to dominate the world stage in the years ahead just as Messi and Ronaldo did during the last decade. Neither has won a Champions League yet, but it would be a pretty safe bet to suggest that one or the other will do it soon.
It is just a huge shame for football that Haaland won’t be at the World Cup this year due to Norway failing to qualify — the game’s biggest competition without its best player will certainly lack something in Qatar.
But Haaland’s absence from the World Cup is only likely to make him and City better this season. While his rivals are spending physical and psychological energy in Qatar, he will be resting up and preparing to go again, fresher than the rest, in the second half of the season.
It is an ominous prospect for City’s rivals. They were already the best team in England before Haaland arrived, but although they still trail early leaders Arsenal in the title race, it seems to be only a matter of time before Guardiola’s juggernaut go top and pull clear before disappearing over the horizon.
United were the first Big Six team to face City and Haaland this season. Prior to the derby, it could have been suggested that a soft start to the campaign had helped Haaland embellish his stats and that the first big challenge would give us a clearer picture of his capabilities.
After United’s 6-3 thrashing, however, we got a clear picture right enough and it’s the same as it was before: Haaland is virtually unstoppable.
He has pace, power and fantastic movement. He also has a true goal scorers’ instinct, which enables him to get into positions that most strikers don’t see. His second goal against United, when he slid in at the far post to convert Kevin De Bruyne’s cross, was a classic example of Haaland spotting a gap when others wouldn’t.
United had no answer to Haaland, but Foden was equally potent and damaging to Erik ten Hag’s team. Haaland and Foden appear to have struck an instant rapport at City and it is showing in their understanding of each others’ runs around the penalty area.
Haaland could have marked his first Manchester derby by scoring five goals, such was his ability to create chances. United got away with it, but another team will be less fortunate. No player has ever scored six in a Premier League game — Sergio Aguero, Alan Shearer and Andy Cole are among a small group to have scored five — but if anyone can do it, it will be Haaland.
The bitter reality for United is that they almost signed him three years ago, but when former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believed he had a deal for the player he handed a debut to as a teenager at Molde, the United hierarchy refused to sanction a buy-out clause in Haaland’s contract and he instead left FC Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund.
It seemed like a decision that would come back to haunt United and it certainly did on Sunday. It probably won’t be the last time it happens either.
Erling Haaland is simply unplayable right now and, if he maintains his form, City will win everything this season.