Many believed Erling Haaland would struggle to adapt to his new surroundings at Manchester City. While the Premier League’s fast and furious nature was always likely to suit the Norwegian striker, the theory went that Pep Guardiola’s intricate, possession-heavy approach wouldn’t suit City’s new £51m frontman. The reality, however, has been very different.
A flying start
Haaland has scored an incredible 15 goals in his first nine Premier League games this season – and 20 times in just 12 games in all competitions. Records are falling almost every time the 22-year-old takes to the pitch, leading some to suggest that he could one day catch Alan Shearer as the Premier League’s all-time top scorer.
Such an achievement might be some way off (Shearer scored 260 Premier League goals), but the prediction illustrates how Haaland has set a new precedent in English football’s top flight. The Premier League has seen some great strikers over the years, but it has never seen a striker like Haaland before.
Incredibly, Haaland is averaging a goal every 13.6 touches for Manchester City this season. For context, Jamie Vardy previously held the record for the best touches-to-goal ratio in Premier League history with 50 per strike. On top of this, Haaland has scored in seven consecutive Premier League matches – the all-time record is 11 matches set by Vardy in 2015/16. Not bad for a player many predicted would initially struggle for City.
It’s certainly true that Haaland is an outlier when assessing City’s possession-based approach. Against Manchester United, the Norwegian had fewer touches of the ball (35) than any other player who started the derby besides Kyle Walker, who was substituted off after only 40 minutes. However, three of those were finishes into the back of the net.
City are successfully tailoring their approach to get the best out of Haaland. In the Community Shield defeat to Liverpool, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were either missing his runs in behind, or refusing to play the ball in behind for him. Some integration was required.
From this point on, though, this happened extremely quickly. De Bruyne’s key pass ratio over the first five matches of the season sat at 2.8 per 90 minutes. Over the last five matches, the Belgian has registered 3.6 key passes per 90 minutes. This illustrates a greater willingness and ability to create for Haaland.
Guardiola signed Haaland to give his team a different dimension. The same principles still underpin Manchester City’s approach, the champions among the best at controlling a match through use of the ball – no team averages a higher share of possession per match this season than City (67.9%).
It used to be the case that City used the wings for verticality through the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, but Haaland’s signing has changed this dynamic. Now, it’s Haaland who provides verticality through the middle, with Phil Foden and Jack Grealish charged with linking up and threading passes in behind opposition defences.
The perfect No. 9
Haaland’s movement makes him the perfect No. 9 for the modern game. He is strong enough to dominate defenders, but has the pace and acceleration to stretch the pitch and ensure City’s possession play never becomes too stodgy. He is also improving his own possession play, registering three Premier League assists, including the exceptional one for Foden in the derby demolition of United.
The Premier League has been home to speedsters, such as Thierry Henry and Vardy, and instinctive finishers, like Sergio Aguero and Ruud van Nistelrooy. However, it has never before seen a striker who poses a threat in so many different ways. Forwards with Haaland’s physicality don’t usually have his speed or nimbleness.
“At his age no one can compete with him,” Guardiola said after Haaland’s stunning hat trick against Manchester United. “The numbers speak for themselves and inside, in the locker room, and on the pitch we see things that are not in the stats that make us feel happy to have him here.”
Andy Cole holds the record for the most goals (34) scored in a single Premier League season. At his current rate, Haaland will smash this by scoring 63 this season. Of course, it might be unrealistic to expect the Norwegian to maintain his current rate of scoring, but records are up for grabs.
Haaland’s father, Alf-Inge Haaland, recently suggested his son would like to play for clubs in a number of countries, with Real Madrid reportedly intent on activating a release clause in the Norwegian’s contract after two seasons at City. Time might be the only thing capable of stopping Haaland from setting a new historic standard in the Premier League history books.