Erling Haaland to Manchester City: How could Pep Guardiola change tactics to exploit the star striker?
There is nothing certain about football transfers. Indeed, one need only scan through the list of the most expensive signings in football history to conclude that the correlation between fees and success on the pitch is, at best, minimal.
Maybe then it helps Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard. City are paying just over half the price these $100m+ players asked for in a deal where Haaland and his advisers ensured that most of the money paid for the player’s services went to Haaland and his advisors.won’t occupy the same rarefied stratosphere as Antoine Griezmann,
For a transfer fee of $63 million, a hefty agent’s commission and around $450,000 in weekly wages, City got a goal-a-game forward who, at 22, could be years away from his prime. . Here’s a diamond that could still use a little polishing, which could be the crown jewel of a side that are on course to win a fourth Premier League title. Pep Guardiola is doing very well without a classic striker. Now he has one of the best in the world.
It’s not like City are short of goals without Haaland. This season, they have scored 145 goals in 56 games and are on track to end the campaign with a three-digit goal difference. The oft-mentioned absence of a central striker has appeared in how many games this season? Perhaps the defeat against Tottenham where a multitude of crosses crossed Hugo Lloris‘six yard box? One could argue about the Champions League semi-final loss to Real Madrid, but that would be confusing a day off for Riyadh Mahrez with a lack of finishing quality (the Algerian has exceeded his expected goals in each of the last five Premier League seasons).
Haaland will help them inflate those goal returns or at least explore the limits of how many points a team can actually score. He fits into Guardiola’s system more easily than one might assume. For a 21-year-old, he has an uncanny understanding of manipulating tusks, perfect for rushing at Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo’s crosses at box level or even to sweep behind for those classic City cuts.
After all, he’s already doing the latter. His sizable Dortmund portfolio is filled with moments when he makes the right run at the right time to deal with a team-mate’s cutback.
His movement is impeccable. For a while in that move, Haaland wanders into an offside position, his chief defender Benjamin Hubner might even think it’s safe to leave him there. The young Norwegian knows better. There are more ways the game will swing towards him than away from him. The rushing Donyel Malen could go past Haaland, no matter if he wins the ball back from his back and forth, Kevin Vogt will feel compelled to back off.
He does, and suddenly Haaland is in first scoring territory, ready to sweep away another goal that looks a lot easier in execution than it was in making.
Haaland is as good as he is as a pure goalscorer at the highest level. In the German league, he averages better than one goal every 90 minutes out of 0.85 expected goals (xG). Before anyone raises the prospect of a Bundesliga tax, one might prefer to examine his frankly ridiculous Champions League returns, one expected goal every 86 minutes and one actual goal every 64. Over the last three years at the European elite level, Haaland has scored more often than Sevilla, Inter Milan or Atletico Madrid.
But then you already knew all that. What’s most intriguing about Haaland is how he could develop City away from goal. Since arriving in English football, Guardiola has tended to favor extreme width in his side and has only leaned more into this approach over the years. His teams built their attacks more and more on the flanks and avoided the punch through the gut attack that Yaya Toure led in previous City teams. In 2017-18, his team carried the ball an average of 1,028 yards per game in the middle third of the attacking half. This season, that number has dropped by about 10%.
Of course, City aren’t the only ones building their attacks on a grand scale. Virtually all football teams do this for the simple reason that the flanks tend to be less congested than the midfield. Maybe Guardiola can change that. Certainly next season he will have the kind of players who can move the ball through the middle like few others. We’ve already seen some of De Bruyne’s best as a dynamic midfield presence in recent weeks. The early stages of the 2-2 Premier League draw with liverpool saw the belgian brush by Fabinho and company as if they weren’t even there.
Haaland could be even harder to stop. The opposing defenses might feel they are in their safe space when the Norwegian drops in midfield with his back to goal; that is, until he ignites the afterburners. Its pace and power are ruthless. A player with this body shape simply shouldn’t be able to move the way he does. It’s a bit like watching the first puffs of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant. You put those skills into that body!? Just as was the case with the Greek Freak in his early NBA years, you get the feeling he’s a far cry from the finished product.
You don’t have to look far, however, for those times when Haaland’s ball carrying and sheer gravity in the middle of the pitch open up new avenues for his teammates. Take this assist below – one of seven he’s provided in the Bundesliga this season – for Axel Witsel. Dortmund’s No.9 drops deep into the right center channel and carries the ball up. Throwback Maximilian Arnold knows he has two players running on the outside and that should be his focus.
But when you have Haaland – a gazelle in a lion’s body – charging at you, how can you not feel a little more concerned about that than whatever is going on behind your back? Arnold steps forward for a moment and that’s all Dortmund need. A simple through pass and Witsel is in a position to score.
It is perhaps the most notable change Haaland has made at Dortmund, a club that risks becoming a graduation school for Europe’s best and brightest. He has notably improved as a ball carrier – particularly moving the ball into the penalty area – and as a facilitator, completing a game that looked like a pure goalscorer when he left Red Bull Salzburg. . In his first half season in Germany, he recorded 0.11 expected assists per 90 minutes, a total which more than doubled to 0.25 in 2021-22, putting him in the top 30 of the Bundesliga. . Indeed, it is even higher than the 0.14 recorded by the man who occupies the place of center forward for City in the top flight this season.
For the most part, the chances Haaland has created and the assists he has provided have come from places similar to those above. Sometimes he will back up into defenders and spin them around the corner. On others, he will choose runners beyond him. You would hardly confuse him with De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva, but then that is precisely the point; City already have players who see the spaces no one else sees. With Haaland and De Bruyne running through the middle, there could be more of those open passes as defenders are sucked onto the pitch.
Ultimately, Haaland’s seamless integration into the current system is more likely to bring about a meaningful change in how and where City build their attacks. If nothing else, the idea that he’s charging through a broken play in the middle requires opponents to do something they rarely do already: break out of a low defensive block they’re trying to hold onto from. for life.
Still, if all it offers under construction is just another way City beat teams – driving to their hearts rather than shoving their way around the side – it’s a welcome addition to the Guardiola’s arsenal. Neither City nor Haaland need to change to both excel, but it never hurts to have another quiver to your bow.