Erling Haaland’s transfer will force Pep Guardiola to rip up his Man City playbook

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A period of adjustment is likely but one of the best attacks in world football are about to sign the best young striker in the world

Sport Analysis

Erling haaland’s transfer will force pep guardiola to rip up his man city playbook

Haaland will add another dimension to Guardiola’s side (Photo: AP)

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By Daniel StoreyChief Football Writer

Were you to look at Manchester City’s hunt for a new striker outside any context, it may all strike as a little peculiar. They have been the top Premier League goalscorers in each of the past four seasons and are on course to make it five. In two of their most painful recent Champions League exits, against Tottenham and Real Madrid, City have scored nine times but been undone by defensive lapses and, Pep Guardiola would argue, cruel fate. But what they need is someone who can put the ball in the back of the net.

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Similarly, the general consensus is that being a striker here must be easy: simply wait for the ball to come to you after an array of ludicrously talented creative midfielders have weaved you a dream. Manchester City have had the most possession, the most shots from open play, the most touches in the penalty area and the most shots from inside the box of any team this season. Every now and then, someone asks on Twitter how many goals a layperson would score from open play in this team. I’ll save you thinking about it: probably none.

It’s not quite as simple as plug in and go. City have used eight different players as the nominal central striker in 35 league matches this season. There’s a good reason for that: being a centre forward for Pep Guardiola becomes an exercise in waiting as much as doing. Sergio Aguero had to learn to enjoy fewer touches, not to roam quite as much, to still link attacks but from a position high up the pitch. He had to adapt to the idea that being less involved in play did not mean that he was less important – quite the opposite.

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This is the arena into which Erling Haaland will soon enter. With finances at several super clubs still uncertain and with Kylian Mbappe leaning towards staying in Paris, there is a space for a superstar commodity to dominate the landscape and you suspect Haaland is confident enough to cope with that pressure. If it’s not quite Eric Cantona’s “Collar up, back straight, chest stuck out, he glided into the arena as if he owned the f___ing place”, as described by Roy Keane, it’ll be pretty close. The boy does not want for self-assurance.

But then why would he? Players find different routes into the elite, from the street footballers fighting for an impossible dream, past the late developers and bloomers to those who fall out of super-academies and re-rise, but Haaland is almost unique. There was, is, a relentless inevitability to all this: the former pro father, the super agent, the childhood star of athletics and handball as well as football, the first-team debut at 15, the silly song released at 16 with almost nine million views on Youtube. He is a sporting phenom at 21.

And yes, the extraordinary physical frame, even by the standards of the modern footballer, monastic in their preparation and dedication to their art and form. The leap, the pace, the height, the upper body strength, the touch, the two-footedness – Haaland is a compilation of some of the best bits of every striker you can name, as if Dr Frankenstein had taken a job in Rogaland on Norway’s west coast and been asked to create a striker that looked a little like the star of a Terminator origin story. It is as if modern football was created for Haaland to knock it down and then grin at the destruction.

The statistics are ridiculous enough to demand a little expansion. Haaland has 169 goals in 218 career matches. He has played only 19 Champions League fixtures, none of them for serious tournament hopefuls, and yet needs only six more goals to break into the top 30 all-time scorers in European Cup history. This season with Dortmund has been difficult: three separate injuries to hip and muscles in a team that failed in Europe. What does comparative setback look like to Haaland? 21 league goals. Nobody younger has managed more than 11 in Europe’s five major leagues.

Haaland’s completeness creates an interesting conundrum for Guardiola, albeit emphatically placed in the “nice problem to have” file. Guardiola exists to mould players: winger to poacher (Raheem Sterling), central midfield worker to goalscorer (Ilkay Gundogan), central defender or midfielder to full-back (various). There is a permanence to Haaland, a forthright unchangeability dictated by his frame and his uber-talent – “If I can do all this, why would you not want me to do it all?”.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison with Haaland – in terms of their silhouette at least – is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, signed by Guardiola for Barcelona for a similar fee in 2009 to lead the line for a team that had allowed Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry to switch positions and roam. Ibrahimovic did not fail at Barcelona – 16 league goals at a rate of one every 125 minutes – and his issues with Guardiola were personal as much as tactical, but after a single season he was replaced by David Villa as Guardiola roughly reverted to type.

There is a question too about City using any focal point striker. It is easy to assume that simply adding an elite finisher to a group of elite creators automatically makes a team greater than the sum of those parts. But football – and particularly Guardiola’s football – contains more nuance than that. What if having a focal point makes City a little less fluid and easier to defend? What if the spaces into which Bernardo, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan have excelled at running into are suddenly a little busy?

If Haaland’s completeness poses a question, it answers it emphatically too. He is comfortable at one-touch finishes. He excels at running in behind but also holding his run to find space in the box. Unlike Aguero, he has proven to be perfectly happy not dropping deep to seek possession; during an away win against Hertha Berlin last season, Haaland had just 26 touches of the ball and scored four goals.

There may well be teething problems. New striker must acclimatise to new club, new league, new manager and new style. Pep Guardiola must reform his attacking strategy. Haaland’s teammates must adapt to a player who is almost the exact opposite of what has succeeded before him.

But talent is a tidal wave. If we should not underestimate the complexity of the system that will be built to accommodate and service Haaland (and for him to service the team), one of the best attacks in world football are about to sign the best young striker in the world. Relentless possession and relentless creativity meets relentless goalscorer. And the rest of the Premier League sighs wearily at the prospect.

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