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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Erling Haaland – a player Manchester City did not miss but who is transformative when he plays

The sense of inevitability was back for Erling Haaland. His second goal against Everton on Saturday, the one that sealed a 2-0 victory for Manchester City, had shades of last season.

The way he ran through on goal and barged Jarrad Branthwaite, a burly 6ft 5in (195cm) centre-back, out of the way was reminiscent of what he did to Brighton defender Lewis Dunk in October 2022, at a time when he had recently scored three consecutive home Premier League hat-tricks and it felt like that sort of form would never stop.

And the way he manoeuvred himself into a position to slot the ball into the far corner with his left foot, using a turning circle a cruise ship would be proud of, was just like when he bagged the second goal of his Premier League debut against West Ham United a couple of months earlier — the first time people sat up and thought, ‘What have we here?’.

He went on to notch 52 club goals last season, seemingly breaking a record a week as he did so, and his arrival was held up as a major reason for City winning the treble (even if it was nowhere near that simple).

Even before his brace yesterday, Haaland was the Premier League’s joint-top scorer — and that is despite missing five matches through injury over Christmas and into the new year — so he still carries a very sizeable goal threat. Just not, until Saturday perhaps, as sizeable as the one of last season, and indeed all his other seasons.

Haaland is on par with his expected goals (xG) number at this point (16 to 15.7), which, just like being top of the Premier League scoring charts, is pretty good; but Haaland’s entire thing is outperforming his xG, and basically all expectations.

Those expectations make it quite difficult to quantify his season so far: he is living up to most normal standards, just not his own.

Last season, he scored 36 league goals from an xG of roughly 28. The year before, it was 22 goals from 18 xG, the one before that 27 from 23.5, etc etc. Last season, his big-chance conversion rate in the Premier League was a very impressive 52.5 per cent. This season, it is down to 40 per cent.

If that is hard to imagine, it would be easier to watch a compilation of his one-against-one chances since August and notice he has missed a lot more of them. That is why the sense of inevitability had gone. It would be easy to surmise that his drop in efficiency is down to Kevin De Bruyne’s absence for the first half of the season, but he has still had those big chances and missed more of them regardless.

He is so good that it almost feels irrelevant to say, ‘Hold on, he is only 22 years old’. It also feels like a cop-out to say, ‘Nobody can produce those kind of numbers forever’, because he seems like exactly the sort of player who could produce those numbers forever, especially when he is in a team as good as City.

And he is doing so well still that it might not be worth making the point at all.

“My advice is: don’t criticise Erling too much,” City manager Pep Guardiola said as early as September, when the striker’s ‘big chance missed’ numbers were brought up in a press conference. “Criticise the full-back, the central defender or the manager, but never, never the striker who has scored all those goals, because he will (score), and then you will be in a position where you have to apologise to him.”

Still, though, that was over four months ago, and only now is the sense of inevitability returning.

He missed those two months through injury, of course, but then there is the awkward issue of City not especially missing him.

Certainly since winning the Club World Cup before Christmas, there was no sense — apart from perhaps against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup fourth round two weeks ago, a game they won anyway — that Haaland would have improved their performances a great deal.

And that is precisely because of the impact he has had on this City side beyond the goals — his presence was, tactically, a problem to solve. He was scoring at that incredible rate before Christmas last season but City were no better off as a team than they were the year before.

They won the treble because they learned how to play to their potential while Haaland played to his, and that involved moving John Stones into midfield to become the ‘extra man’ they could no longer create by asking their striker to drop deep and link up with the midfield, because Haaland cannot do that anywhere near as well as some of his team-mates.

And so when Haaland was forced out of the team before and over the festive period, City simply went back to their old ways, getting Julian Alvarez to drop deep from striker and be that extra man — which was very helpful considering Stones was injured too.

City had to rip up their finely-tuned plan to fit Haaland in, which was certainly worth the hassle last season as he scored goals for fun, but is a little harder to justify when he is merely scoring at a normal rate.

On Saturday, for example, there were plenty of other reasons why City struggled in the face of Everton’s intense pressure, namely Manuel Akanji moving into midfield, near Matheus Nunes and Alvarez. All fine players, but not best suited to operating quickly and precisely in tight spaces.

It meant Haaland himself had little to feed off and he cannot be blamed for others losing the ball, but had he not been there at all, City might have used whoever was operating as their striker to better effect, deploying somebody else who could contribute more to the team creating chances in the first place.

What Haaland showed in the end was an eye for goal that none of the others have, which is especially important now that many of those who shared the goals around during City’s false-nine era, such as Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez, have left.

The fact of the matter these days is Haaland will always play if fit, with Guardiola having sensibly judged that even if he does take certain things away from the team, they can usually be made up for in other areas. And that allows him to do what he does best.

That was in evidence against Everton; if the second goal was Haaland at his unstoppable best, his first was a return to his startling efficiency. There was the element of sensing where the loose ball would drop, and then there was the fact he steadied himself so well to ensure he hit it on the bounce so powerfully with his weaker foot.

His season so far has been less sparkling than his first was, and City showed in his absence that they are by no means lost without him, but on Saturday Haaland showed, like last season, that he has his own ways of making them more dangerous than ever.

(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)



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