It took Erling Haaland just 36 minutes to score his first Premier League goal, and 29 minutes more to score his second. Many predicted the Norwegian striker would hit the ground running for Manchester City, but his debut in the Community Shield defeat to Liverpool the week previously raised questions about his role in Pep Guardiola’s team. Against West Ham, though, Haaland provided some quick answers.
Against Liverpool, Haaland was left isolated for large periods of the match. City played the entire 2021/22 campaign without a recognised number nine and they appeared uncertain how to harness a striker of the 22-year-old’s profile. There were occasions when Haaland and his new teammates were on different wavelengths.
This certainly wasn’t the case against West Ham, though. Indeed, Haaland’s teammates were tuned into the runs being made by the Norwegian and this understanding produced the opportunities from which both goals in the 2-0 win for the defending Premier League champions were scored.
There were more moments of quick transition for Haaland to capitalise on against West Ham than there was the case against Liverpool in the Community Shield and this suited his natural game. The Hammers left space in behind their defensive line for Haaland to exploit. Once he was released through on goal, there was no stopping him.
Kevin de Bruyne registered three key passes in the win over West Ham and all three of them were played into Haaland. Ilkay Gundogan also made two and produced the pass from which Haaland drew the challenge from Alphonse Areola to win the first half penalty kick. A large part of Manchester City’s game was designed to get Haaland into goalscoring positions.
The concern around Haaland as a City player comes when assessing the role he plays in possession. Guardiola likes his team to control the ball and this is where the Norwegian striker is an awkward fit. Haaland is far from a one-dimensional targetman, but he doesn’t tend to drop deep and involve himself in build-up play.
Haaland only made 32 touches of the ball in 90 minutes against West Ham. For context, this was the lowest number of any Manchester City player that started the match, including goalkeeper Ederson (46). Haaland also made the fewest passes (23). This is in stark contrast to the way Phil Foden played as a centre forward for City last season, when the England international was deployed in this position to link up all areas of Guardiola’s team.
In many ways, West Ham played into Manchester City’s, and Haaland’s, hands. The away team dominated large periods of possession, but West Ham still attempted to keep a high line when they could. The true test of Haaland’s compatibility at City will come when they come up against low defensive blocks with no intent to play out.
City’s new dimension
City weren’t at their best against West Ham, but their performance demonstrated why they signed Haaland. He gives them an option and an outlet. Guardiola’s team no longer have to be so precise to score goals. Haaland’s movement gives Manchester City another dimension and that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the Premier League.
“He’s a guy with incredible talent, scores nice numbers but we would like to add something more to his game to be a better player,” Guardiola explained after the 2-0 win at the London Stadium. “Not just a guy who scores goals, which is so important, but that’s why we want to try to give everything to him to be a better player. He was born to score goals.”
In a sense, Haaland’s signing makes Manchester City a more orthodox team. Previously, Guardiola looked to the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling to offer vertical threat in the wide areas and asked his central operators to offer passing options. Now, the dynamic has been flipped and it’s Haaland who offers vertical threat through the middle.
An evolution on both sides
Of course, Guardiola still has the option of Foden as a centre forward. Haaland is expected to start most matches when fit, but Foden could allow Manchester City to play a more intricate possession game when it is required. The signing of Haaland doesn’t mean City can’t toggle back to what worked for them last season.
Guardiola has evolved as a coach over the last decade or so. At Barcelona, he favoured a pure possession game, but came to appreciate the value of quick transition during three seasons as Bayern Munich manager. The pace and physicality of the Premier League forced Guardiola to adapt his approach further and Haaland’s signing reflects this. The Norwegian would never have played for Guardiola’s Barcelona team.
But this evolution has kept Guardiola at the top of the sport for 15 years. City have already made changes to their approach to accommodate Haaland and the Norwegian will also have to adapt his game to offer Guardiola exactly what he wants. His performance against West Ham hinted at what could follow.