Even as Manchester City claimed a fourth Premier League title in five years, their desire for a new number nine was clear.
And so it was unsurprising when a £51 million deal for the signing of Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund was announced before the 2021/22 season had even finished. City wasted no time filling that hole.
It’s not so much that Pep Guardiola’s team needed a designated centre forward. They were still one of the strongest teams in Europe last season when they used Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling in a variety of different roles through the middle. Their new world-class centre forward makes them even stronger.
Ultimately, Manchester City decided to sign Haaland rather than resume pursuit of Harry Kane, who they spent much of last summer’s transfer window courting.
He was the centre forward Guardiola wanted above all others and City were willing to spend big to sign him. But not as big as Tottenham Hotspur demanded to sell their top scorer and best player. In the end, Kane stayed put.
But have the Premier League champions made the right decision with Haaland? Have they found the best centre forward for the future and for Guardiola’s system? Is the Norwegian really a better option for City than Kane would have been?
There is plenty of statistical evidence to suggest Kane would have been a more natural fit. The 28-year-old isn’t just one of the sharpest finishers in the Premier League, but one of the most effective passers. Indeed, he is in the 99th percentile for through balls per 90 minutes among players in his position and the 94th percentile for progressive passing distance.
Kane likes to drop deep to conduct attacking moves and this is something that would have worked well at City: The England captain would have had the likes of Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Sterling ahead of him as passing options.
Kane is in the 86th percentile for switches of play per 90 minutes, another quality that would have made him a good fit for Guardiola’s team.
Haaland, on the other hand, is nowhere near this level in terms of his passing. While he is in the 95th percentile for through balls per 90 minutes, he is only in the 32nd percentile for progressive passing distance and the 19th percentile for switches of play. They might both be goalscorers, but Haaland and Kane have very different profiles.
To get the best out of Haaland, Manchester City will have to open up more space in behind opposition defences. It’s in these areas where the Norwegian international is most devastating, as illustrated by his impressive shooting figures: Haaland averages an astonishing 0.81 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes and is in the 98th percentile for non-penalty Expected Goals (xG).
However, City play a style of football that frequently sees them camped in the final third. They only scored two counter-attacking goals in the Premier League last season (according to WhoScored). For context, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United all scored at least double this amount on the break.
City also amounted the most short passes in the final third in the Premier League last season, highlighting how they like to use the ball to play through opponents that sit deep in a low defensive block. It’s unclear if Haaland will be able to score as many goals in this set up as he is in a system that opens up space on the break.
“I hear that he’s not going to adapt to the way we play. I would like to ask how is the way we play? I’m pretty sure they don’t know it,” Guardiola responded when asked to explain how Haaland will fit into his City team.
“I’m pretty sure they adapt well. Julian [Alvarez] is coming, we’re going to help him to adapt well. I think the players when they are good and normally it happens in these type of clubs – they have good vibes and energy to stay positive to understand and to help. Our way to play is so simple.”
This certainly isn’t the first time City have made a big-name signing only to face scrutiny over how that signing will fit into their team. Jack Grealish cost a club-record £100 million fee last summer, but plays a slower game than is normal for a player in a Guardiola team.
Grealish takes lots of touches of the ball, and has had to learn to move it on quicker since joining City a year ago.
Haaland might have to embrace a similar learning process if he wants to truly integrate himself at the Etihad Stadium. His technical ability is strong enough to satisfy Guardiola, but he may have to push himself into deeper areas of the pitch where he wouldn’t have previously strayed to link build-up play.
There is nothing to stop Haaland from becoming the centre forward City need, but the Norwegian might require a period of transition, just as Grealish did last season. Haaland need only look at how Sergio Aguero adapted his game to satisfy Guardiola to see how it’s possible to add elements to his play, such as off-the-ball work ethic and possession play.
Many argue, with some justification, that Kane would have made Manchester City a stronger team in the immediate term than Haaland will.
After all, the 28-year-old already plays a game that would have aligned nicely with City’s overall approach as a team. In theory, Guardiola would have had an easier time building his attack around Kane.
But Manchester City have made a bet that Haaland will be able to broaden his skill set over time. The Norwegian is still only 22 and will now receive the same education that turned the likes of de Bruyne and Foden into world-class players.
If there’s one manager that can mould Haaland into the perfect City centre forward, it’s Guardiola.