Erling Haaland was signed by Manchester City as the final piece of the jigsaw to win the Champions League. If that reality makes Pep Guardiola’s team less likely to win the Premier League this season, then so be it.
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Whether the calculation was made at the Etihad Stadium, that City’s biggest strength under Guardiola — the ability to control games with an incredible dominance of possession that creates chances for many different players in the team — would have to be sacrificed to accommodate Haaland, only the City manager and the club’s senior figures will truly know.
But after continually falling short in the Champions League, City needed something different to beat Europe’s elite and Haaland, arguably the most ruthless goal scorer in football right now, was signed from Borussia Dortmund in the summer to be the team’s game-changer when the pressure is at its most intense in the competition that City’s Abu Dhabi owners remain so desperate to win.
That part of the Haaland equation has yet to play out, but if the Norway international scores decisive goals in the latter stages of the Champions League to deliver the European Cup to the blue half of Manchester for the first time, the negative impact he has had on City’s Premier League performances will be quickly forgotten.
It is impossible to suggest that Haaland has been anything other than a success since his €60 million arrival from Dortmund, but it is clear that the 22-year-old has become something of an enigma for City. As the new apex of City’s attack he has already scored 25 Premier League goals and will almost certainly break the record of most goals scored in a Premier League season, jointly held by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole with 34. Haaland has also scored four Premier League hat tricks this season and enjoyed a 10-game scoring streak early in the campaign.
But guess what? After 21 league games this season, City have scored 53 goals, precisely the same number as they had after 21 games last season. So rather than boost their firepower by having Haaland in the team, City have merely become over-reliant on his goals and it is now beginning to show in their league performances and results.
While they are still routinely dominating the possession in matches, City have lost their collective threat of five or six players threatening to score in any attacking move, and opponents have worked out that if you stop Haaland, you can stop City. Or more to the point, if you starve him of service, the wheels fall off the City machine.
When Haaland doesn’t score, he does little else. For the first time in a Premier League game this season during Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, Haaland didn’t register a touch in the opposition penalty area.
He was similarly anonymous during the 2-1 defeat at Manchester United last month and although City beat Arsenal 1-0 in their recent FA Cup fourth-round tie, Haaland was marked out of the game by the Gunners’ back four, most notably by centre-back Rob Holding.
In that match, in which City defender Nathan Ake was the unlikely match-winner, the shortcomings in Haaland’s game when playing with his back to goal were evident. He is not a classic centre-forward who can hold the ball up and link play — Harry Kane has a far more rounded game and would have given City those qualities had he signed for the club in 2021. Haaland’s inability to do so means that Guardiola’s team have much less control of the ball than in previous seasons.
As a team built to dominate possession, having a centre-forward who only wants to play with the goal in front of him does not really fit with City’s strengths. As a consequence, opponents with powerful, combative midfielders are regaining possession more quickly and denying City what had been the very basic element of their game — dominance of the ball. And if they have less of the ball, City have fewer opportunities to feed it to Haaland.
This time last season, with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus still at the club alongside Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, City were only predictable in the manner in which they attacked teams from all angles. But with Haaland, it has all changed. They have become a cup team rather than one that dominates a league. The difference is that they are now having to play a more end-to-end game rather than a controlled one.
But this is ultimately why Haaland could still be the man to win the Champions League for City. All of the qualities that made City so dominant in the Premier League proved less effective against the very best teams in Europe because they were playing against players who were just as good technically, with coaches who had the tools to beat Guardiola. What City needed in those heart-breaking defeats against Real Madrid (in the 2022 semifinal), Chelsea (2021 final) and Tottenham (2019 quarterfinal) was a goal scorer who could take the chances to win a tight game, and they didn’t have one.
In recent years, the teams with the best strikers have generally won the Champions League and City now have arguably the best in Haaland.
Winning in Europe is a different challenge to winning in the Premier League and Guardiola knows that. But even the City manager must be surprised by just how much Haaland has changed the way his team plays, and it’s not for the better.