IN-DEPTH: What it means for Manchester City to sign Erling Haaland
A lot has been written over the years about false nines, traditional strikers, and how Pep Guardiola should (or should not) use them. A lot has also been written about failed transfers by Manchester City.
Two summers ago, we learned about the master plan of Lionel Messi, and his father turned agent’s burofax, which was destined to allow the Argentine to break free of his contract, team up with his former manager, and bring Champions League glory to City. But before the dream could be realized, the powers that be in La Liga and Barcelona denied the move, citing verbiage in the contract.
Last August, it was all about Harry Kane, he was touted as Guardiola’s perfect striker: a player who could be both a traditional and false nine. But he and his brother turned agent’s supposed gentlemen’s agreement with Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, appeared to be nothing more than an empty promise in a contract negotiation.
Before them, it was Alexis Sanchez, Dani Alves, Frenkie de Jong, Jorginho, Kalidou Koulibaly, and most recently the aforementioned Messi and Kane. Oh, and that brief 24-hour period where Cristiano Ronaldo looked like a possibility. All players that appeared to be City-bound, only for the deal to fall apart in the closing moments – although, how close they were to signing Koulibaly or Ronaldo is disputed, and they were certainly not as advanced as the others.
So when rumours began to heat up that Erling Haaland, the son of former City captain Alfie Haaland (who is also one of Erling’s representatives), could potentially sign for his father’s old club, it sounded far too good to be true.
We had seen this movie far too many times before.
But it was not. For once, it appears that a family member being the agent/representative of one of our transfer targets has actually been of use.
Nearly ten years to the day of Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal against QPR, his successor was announced in a quaint, twenty-eight-word statement.
In the month since there has been a flurry of opinions cast on what this signing means. For many, he is the talisman that the squad has been lacking. A Karim Benzema-esque presence that at the snap of his fingers can push the club over the line in the defining moments. For others, he’s either a poor system fit, injury-prone, or destined to fall prey to the “Bundesliga tax” that has plagued high-profile signings joining the Premier League from Germany. Some even think he's all three.
So, which one is it?
Well, the reality is he actually might be a mixture of all four. Statistically speaking, Haaland is one of the most clinical finishers in the world, ranking in the 98th percentile or higher in nearly any relevant statistic for forwards in all of Europe. It’s also true that the 21-year-old has spent the past two and a half seasons playing in a league that is vastly more open and gives considerably more credence to attacking play compared to the Premier League. While he doesn’t have a long record of injuries, he has missed a fair amount of time this past year. And yes, there absolutely have been some big money transfers from the Bundesliga that have been suboptimal at best.
There are reasons to be sceptical. However, most of them are overblown.
How does he fit?
Close your eyes and think of every chance that has fallen to the feet of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and sometimes even Phil Foden, only for them to have a heavy touch, hold on to the ball for just a split second too long, or just simply showcase a lack of composure and poor finishing. Think of the number of times over the past two seasons you’ve said to yourself: ‘it should’ve been 10’.
Now just imagine those chances to be granted to a man who has 106 goals in his last 110 matches for club and country. A man who stands 6 foot 4 inches tall, weighs 200 pounds and is as fast as Alphonso Davies. A man who has shattered goal records wherever he has played. It's as though a human has been able to possess the Power Stone.
And for those chances that do actually land to his new teammates, imagine how much extra time and space they will be afforded due to the added emphasis that defences will place on Haaland. It has the potential to be game-breaking.
Just look at the goals he added to his tally this past week in the Nations League. His first was a perfectly timed run and volleyed finish. He starts his run in front of the defender, but by the time the ball is played in, he has slipped in behind unnoticed for the tap-in. His second goal against Sweeden was a great finish from an incredibly tight angle. Both of these were eerily reminiscent of his predecessor.
There were also the two well-taken penalties against Sweeden. The first was hit too hard for the goalkeeper to save and the second sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. Although Mahrez has finally brought stability to the penalty spot for Manchester City, Haaland's record is now 20 goals in 22 attempts.
Norway scored six goals in their four Nations League matches. Five were scored by Haaland, and he assisted the sixth and final.
There is no denying that Haaland does not possess the “pausa” gene that Pep Guardiola desperately looks for in his players. And his technical ability is not on the same level as Foden, who has had to bear the responsibility of the false nine this past season.
When Haaland does eventually feature for City, Guardiola will most certainly lose some of that control he has so desperately sought out the last two seasons. Tactics will have to change.
It’s hard to imagine Haaland dropping deep into midfield and pinging balls around the pitch early in his City career, but it’s worth noting that at 21 years old he is one of the youngest players Guardiola has signed during his time in Manchester.
When you look at the development of players like Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling, Rodri, and Bernardo Silva, you can envision how Haaland’s game could grow even further. For perspective, when Kane was Haaland’s age he had just completed his “one-year wonder” season after a series of loans for lower English sides.
There are signs of Haaland’s close control and passing ability, as showcased in a 3-1 win over Leipzig in January. Fans may also remember that Haaland set up both of Borussia Dortmund’s goals against the Blues in the Champions League quarter-finals last year.
After watching Haaland over the past three years there’s a clear penchant, if not an over-reliance, for quick, first-touch passes back to a midfielder for runs in behind. Other than that, he has yet to be asked to display his passing repertoire, if he even has one.
It remains to be seen how both Haaland and Guardiola will adapt to make it work.
Taking a step back, it’s fun to try and imagine all the different lineups Guardiola might conjure up to try and make this work. Without quickly falling into a full-on Umir deep dive that borders on FIFA Ultimate Team.
Maybe the 3-5-2 that the Catalan used during his early years returns, maybe we'll continue to see this type of 4-2-3-1 with De Bruyne wreaking havoc that has been showcased recently.
But the most likely lineup involves a return to the Centurion days, with high and wide wingers creating space for two midfielders to exploit, backed by Rodri and inverted fullbacks to recycle possession and prevent counters with two defenders at the back. Haaland fills in for Aguero, either Foden or Grealish can play wide left, with Mahrez or Sterling on the right. And Cole Palmer and Julian Alvarez will be there, too.
Pep has rekindled City's success by hyper-focusing on controlling all aspects of the pitch. That is the luxury the false 9 has given him, at the expense of an elite goalscorer. Now that he finally has one, he will be forced to adapt.
Now some problems arise from this. In possession, Kyle Walker often acts as a third centre-back and pseudo-sweeper for balls played over the top, and Guardiola may refuse to bring him further up the pitch. Yes, there is the occasional long bombastic run or a 35-yard shot that is easily saved, but for the most part, he is on the pitch to immediately nullify any potential counter and recycle possession.
In that scenario, Sterling or Mahrez would stay wide right, Bernado and Rodri would sit deeper in possession and Joao Cancelo could push further up on the left. This allows whoever Pep plays at left wing to play more centrally alongside Haaland and De Bruyne.
While passing triangles, overlapping runs, and cut-back passes have been the stereotypical keys to success for City and Guardiola, their ability to score with set-pieces has in large part been the reason for holding off Liverpool this past year.
City had the best set-piece record in Premier League history since Opta began tracking. Much of that work belongs to Carlos Vicens, who nearly left Guardiola’s staff to become a manager on his own, only to make a dramatic return earlier this month. Vicens will be able to add Haaland's physical advantages to Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, Nathan Ake, and Rodri, who have all become threats from set-pieces as of late.
Despite his size and athleticism, Haaland’s ability in the air hasn’t been showcased as much as you would expect. From his eighty-six goals for Dortmund, only six have come via his head. The bright spot is that four of them were this past season and he has won 58% of headers, which would put him in the 97th percentile in Europe and 10% higher than Robert Lewandowski and Kane.
It’s hard to imagine his presence alone won’t frustrate defenders, who were already having to accommodate for City’s height.
Since the departure of Leroy Sane two summers ago, City haven’t been able to replicate that same threat on the counter. For most of the past two seasons, City have either been instructed to avoid attacking on the counter and losing control or have seen a long winding De Bruyne run end with a lack of runners and a wasted opportunity.
When you look at all of the goals Haaland has scored since joining Dortmund, so many have come in those exact situations. Yes, he will not be as frequently afforded that same space in England, but those chances, and goals, will still come.
Especially when you consider Liverpool and their ridiculously high line. Over the past four seasons, half of the league matches between the Premier League champions and Liverpool have ended in a draw. These games will likely be what decides the Premier League title for years to come.
Think about their last meeting at the Etihad. Think of how many balls De Bruyne played behind that went wasted. Haaland’s pace and ability to exploit the space behind Liverpool's defence has the potential to give City the edge in turning those draws into victories.
Guardiola has proved his ability to reshape and rebuild his side as he now enters his seventh season. He has been tasked with replacing a club legend year after year. It has never been a like-for-like, instead, it has been more of a retooling.
Bernardo for David Silva, Dias for Vincent Kompany, and Rodri for Fernandinho. Bernardo and Rodri in particular play the same position but have different roles from their now former teammates. Haaland will be the same for Aguero.
The final Infinity Stone for Guardiola's gauntlet.
Like most football fans, I spend far too much time on Twitter. This means I see the insanity that is the replies and mentions to every major outlet or writer. It’s hard to avoid. And there are fewer catchphrases thrown around in those doldrums than “Bundesliga Tax”.
For those who aren’t aware, the “Bundesliga Tax” is a phrase given out ad nauseam whenever a highly productive player from the Bundesliga is spoken about potentially joining a top team outside of Germany. It’s meant to downplay their achievements due to the number of players who have not been able to find that same form in other countries, especially in the Premier League.
Now, it isn’t without some merit. When you look at the biggest sales from Bundesliga clubs there are absolutely some disappointments as of late: Jadon Sancho to Manchester United for £76.5m, Kai Havertz to Chelsea for £72m, Luka Jovic to Real Madrid for £56m, Timo Werner to Chelsea for £47.7m, and Sebastien Haller to West Ham for £45m. I left off players like Ousmane Dembele, Naby Keita, and Christian Pulisic because of injuries that have prevented them from finding any kind of consistent form.
The Bundesliga is unique, and it is difficult to judge how a player will carry over when switching to a new league (more on that later). It’s telling that the three players with the highest xG per90 amongst the top five leagues in Europe, Patrick Schick (.97), Lewandowski (.94), and Haaland (.81) all play there.
Werner has struggled to find his form since joining Chelsea and has spoken about how difficult it has been to cope with how intense and physical the defenders have been. While Haaland’s physicality is unmatched, there is no guarantee for a smooth process, especially considering how long it takes for most new City players to adapt to Guardiola’s style.
However, it isn’t as simple as all Bundesliga players are finally exposed as the frauds they are the moment they join another league. It is far more indicative of poor recruitment by top clubs across Europe. When you look at record transfers across all of Europe, it’s far easier to find transfers that didn’t work out, compared to those that have. Most have been quality players that were bought by poorly run clubs and played in systems that didn’t suit their strengths.
Havertz and Werner were thrown into a new front line and asked to immediately make an impact with Frank Lampard as their tactician. Antoine Griezmann and Phillipe Coutinho were brought in to essentially play the exact same role (without the same ability) as Messi. Joao Felix was bought at a record fee, only to be deployed as a rich man’s Roberto Firmino.
Very expensive mistakes were made.
That isn’t the case with City. They have a unique advantage: a blend of incredibly wealthy, ambitious owners, and a recruitment team led by former Barcelona executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, who have rarely had a poor signing in the Guardiola era.
And when you look at Bundesliga players signed by the club, you get Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane. There’s a lot of room for optimism here. Even outside of City, players like Heung-min Son, Ibrahima Konate, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thiago have all found success after moving to England.
Lastly, Haaland's excellent goal scoring is not exclusive to the Bundesliga.
71 goals in 76 matches in the German Bundesliga and domestic cups, 17 goals in 16 matches while playing in Austria, 23 goals in 19 matches in the Champions League, followed by 20 goals in 21 matches for Norway.
He has contributed at nearly a goal per game at every level he has played as a professional. It has not mattered if he has been playing in a heavily criticised German league, in the heralded Champions League, or for his lacklustre national team.
Regardless of competition, the goal-scoring rate has remained identical.
Injuries are the great unknown with Haaland. It certainly isn’t reassuring for a player to miss nearly fifteen games in a single season with varying muscle injuries. However, it remains to be seen if this is a one-off or the start of a worrying trend.
Kit Holden, who covers German football, shared on The Athletic Football Podcast that he believes it’s “more a case that it’s a Dortmund issue than a Haaland issue” – reiterating that Haaland barely missed any time for Salzburg or Molde before arriving in Germany.
It is also worth noting that Dortmund parted ways with both Marco Rose, their manager, and Thomas Zetzmann, the club’s top physiotherapist, at the end of the season. Muscle injuries had become a consistent issue at Dortmund last season and there is speculation their departures are in some part related to that.
Even if Haaland’s injury issue lingers, he certainly won’t be expected to feature as heavily as he has for Dortmund. With City’s continued push for the quadruple, squad rotation is a must.
Alvarez will leave River Plate for good this summer and will provide some much-needed depth at the striker position. It’s currently unknown if Liam Delap will stay or be loaned out this summer, he may be afforded some extra minutes as well.
And what’s the worst thing that could happen, more Foden as a false nine? It has only led to consecutive Premier League titles and nearly consecutive Champions League final appearances.
When looking at other transfers that have gone wrong due to injuries there aren’t any clear patterns.
Dembele didn’t miss a single game at Rennes or Dortmund but has missed over a season of games with Barcelona.
Konate had missed significant time the previous two seasons with Leipzig, he hasn’t had a single issue at Liverpool. Keita had a few small injuries with Leipzig before missing considerable time during his spell at Liverpool.
Pulisic is the only player that had consistent issues at both his current and former clubs. Injuries are peculiar. It’s a player-by-player, team-by-team type of issue. There is rarely a blueprint.
Only time will tell.
There is always optimism when a player is signed. The compilation videos and quotes from executives make it seem like every signing is going to be a perfect fit, but rarely does a signing feel this monumental.
The potential is there for Haaland to become City’s version of Alfredo Di Stefano. A high-profile signing that found immediate success with Real Madrid and played a key role in capturing European glory for their first time; the type of player that can permanently changed their club's reputation.
Progression in the Champions League has been a steady climb under Guardiola. It isn’t difficult to imagine Haaland having that same impact.
Erling Haaland is inevitable.
Written by: @IVIeehan