Fans of Manchester City’s unnamed Premier League side had high hopes for the games played in one semi-final. Erling Haaland’s unbecoming physical specimen to score goals was incompatible with Manchester City’s dominant style of football. Haaland lost a few moments in last week’s Community Shield against Liverpool, where he rarely received the ball and when he did, he took some easy chances.
That hope lasted for one game.
In retrospect, it should have been clear sooner rather than later that City were always going to turn to Haaland’s unstoppable talent. City manager Pep Guardiola is too smart to stick to a rigid system to avoid being exposed to goals. And City went into Sunday’s first game of the Premier League season looking like they had an oh-so-many goal in hand – a tough away game at last year’s seventh-placed West Ham – and came away with one. A comfortable 2–0 win, fueled by the thunderous legs of new Norwegian signing Lank.
In particular, both of City’s goals were created by balls behind the defensive line, which required Haaland’s pace at the other end. The first of those balls is more impressive, or actually more terrifying. The inability of men of Haaland’s size—6-foot-4, 200 pounds—to go from a light run to a full sprint like he did here forced West Ham goalkeeper Alphonse Arela to do the only thing he could do. Set a definite goal.
Haaland needn’t have worried as he still went to the penalty spot and scored his first Premier League goal.
Back to the game leading up to the penalty kick though. This is one of the tactical changes Guardiola has made: instead of Haaland reverting to a false 9 to play a one-two with Ilkay Gundogan, the Norwegian has the freedom and incentive to break between defenders. When Gundogan received the ball from a narrow Joao Cancelo, Haaland turned and sped into the open space before Areola got the ball.
It’s a simple adjustment, but this is evident in a team that hasn’t relied on a true striker since the Sergio Aguero years. It also talks about important growing pains for the city as it continues to weave through Holland. The fact that it took 34 minutes for the team to finally use good football and play in the new equipment is a sign that there is still progress here. Haaland was making runs at the back of the game but was consistently rewarded only by passing over the top. The earlier and more often he crosses the city, the more likely Haaland is to do what he does most.
Haaland’s second goal on Sunday was a proof of concept. This is less down to tactical cheating and more down to the unfair combination of Haaland’s quick movement and Kevin De Bruyne’s whole Kevin De Bruyne thing. But, still, it’s worth looking at how Haaland knows that if he gets the diagonal across the backline, his amazingly creative teammates will find him.
On this occasion, De Bruyne received the ball, took a touch, then fired a perfectly weighted pass to Haaland. He beats them, and squares his body to put a first shot through Areola. This simple goal was just the perfect combination of skills on display and perhaps even more than the first goal, this second result shows what Haaland can bring to a team as good and consistent as City.
One of the consequences of City’s excessive possession style is that they wear down the opposition, with the ball constantly moving and running for the strongest two-thirds of the game. When those legs start to get heavy, the city may start opening up the often-stopped buses, making more room for Holland’s nonstop runs. Goals like this will always be there for Haaland as long as City continue to adapt to his talent.
One thing Haaland shouldn’t be asked to do too often is something Guardiola has asked his forwards to do in the past, which is to build play and combine good moves. Given the Bundesliga’s penchant for more open play and an active emphasis on defensive rigidity, he has never had to compete with a tighter defense in his life. There will be struggles in England, but Guardiola will be able to manage his new toy by using his physicality to devise a way to open up some space. Haaland is less of a Skassell and more of a chainsaw, and as long as the manager understands the difference, there will be blood and bones scattered throughout this team’s revival.