EPL TALK: Haaland the great may not be making Man City greater
He may become the greatest striker of this generation, but Manchester City are struggling to adjust to his playing style
MANCHESTER City know the Erling Haaland story already. He arrived at a title-winning club with a lofty reputation and a clear objective: take a successful team to the next level. The clash of styles was obvious. The tactical experiment always required time and patience.
But it failed anyway, by the player’s own admission.
Only the player’s name was Rodney Marsh and the time was 1972 and a title-chasing City slowly fell away, unable to accommodate such a singular talent, unable to adapt to the forward’s unique set of skills, unable to see what was self-evident to all except the manager.
Manchester City broke a squad that didn’t need fixing.
The Rodney Marsh story is now part of City folklore: the maverick who messed with a winning formula. He joined in March 1972, when his new club were top of the table with nine games left. What could possibly go wrong?
Just about everything, really. A languid, flamboyant entertainer – imagine the love child of Matt le Tissier and Jack Grealish – Marsh slowed down an industrious side filled with worker bees. City finished fourth in the final standings.
History isn’t quite repeating itself – not yet anyway – but there are distinct echoes. Big signing joins settled squad. A superstar disrupts an established system. The structural tweaks need a period of adjustment. Productivity levels may vary as a consequence.
Those are the similarities between Marsh and Haaland, but the differences are no less obvious. Marsh was a free spirit, a kind of anarchic footballer popular in the staid Seventies, along with George Best and Stan Bowles. Haaland is a one-off aberration, a startling deviation from the conventional gene pool. He is designed to score.
In my secondary school, there was a giddy PE teacher who played in our football lessons and deliberately allowed the opposing team to take a three-goal lead, before unleashing himself in the final moments, scoring a late, dramatic hat-trick to showcase the gulf between malnourished 12-year-olds and a grown man who really should’ve known better. That’s Haaland against English Premier League defenders.
At times, he struggles not to giggle at the ease of it all – man against boys, monster against mortals, all outlandish comparisons are valid – as he powers away. It’s not a fair fight. He’s not a contestant on Survivor. Haaland doesn’t need to outwit, outplay or outlast defenders. He’s just faster and stronger than everyone else. He’s the brawny PE teacher teasing the skinny kids every week, sometimes three times a week.
Direct deliveries missing from Haaland's teammates
To rattle through some of the silly stats, his four EPL hat-tricks already exceed Cristiano Ronaldo’s total. Haaland took just 19 games to reach that number. To underscore the absurdity, Ruud van Nistelrooy is the next fastest forward to reach four EPL hat-tricks, but he needed 65 games at Manchester United.
In total, Haaland has 31 goals in 25 games across all competitions – in half a season. His 25 league goals means he has scored more goals than nine EPL teams. If he knocks in another couple and overtakes Leeds’ tally of 26, the Norwegian will be ahead of half of the clubs in the table. On his own.
His effortless dismantling of Wolves’ backline captured his game in microcosm: 59 minutes on the pitch, 16 touches of the ball, three goals, one match ball. When the right pass is played, when weak opponents wobble, there is only one outcome.
But Haaland’s plundering still relies on certain preconditions: a pliable back four ahead of him and direct deliveries from team-mates behind him.
Both were noticeable by their absence in the recent Manchester derby. Fred cut off the supply line, by man-marking Kevin de Bruyne, and the Red Devils doubled up on Haaland. As a result, Pep Guardiola was left with nothing but his voice, screaming at the Norwegian to drop deeper, which Haaland did, reluctantly and ineffectively.
The triumph of the collective system over the gifted individual has been discussed since England won the World Cup with their wingless wonders in 1966 and even more so in the modern era. More importantly, the margin for error has decreased significantly at elite level. Haaland’s arrival and City’s tactical transition can cause just enough disruption to affect their performance in both the Manchester derby and the title chase.
It will be genuinely fascinating to see what negative impact, if any, the Norwegian’s presence has against Arsenal – first in the upcoming FA Cup match and then in their two league encounters.
Manchester United supporters are certainly enjoying the irony, the idea that their neighbours might have a debilitating dose of the "Ronaldos", a centre-forward playing havoc with established playing practices.
As the Premier League moves into the second half of the season, Manchester City remain in second place with 53 goals scored from 20 games. They have conceded 20 times. Last season, the champions prevailed with 99 goals scored and 26 conceded across 38 games. In other words, they scored just as often without Haaland, but were better defensively.
Statistics are always open to interpretation, but the numbers could suggest that a striker’s dominance is diminished in the era of high pressing and constant possession or the Norwegian hasn’t massively improved his new side or City are still evolving.
It’s a fun debate and one that perhaps doesn’t really matter. Haaland was signed for those fine margins in the Champions League, to clear the final inches that City couldn’t reach against Real Madrid last season. His real job is to annex Europe.
Until then, the FA Cup tie against Arsenal will provide an intriguing interlude, another chance to see the Haaland paradox play out on screen.
He’s well on his way to becoming the best striker of his generation. That’s a done deal. Turning Manchester City into the best team of their generation will be the tricky bit.
(Haaland's) well on his way to becoming the best striker of his generation. That’s a done deal. Turning Manchester City into the best team of their generation will be the tricky bit.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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