Two experts go head-to-head on the Norwegian’s lack of time on the ball at the Etihad on Saturday
Three games into Erling Haaland’s Manchester City career and we have seen plenty to get excited about. Some of the things we saw at Salzburg and Dortmund, the ones you send your mates on WhatsApp, but now over here in our backyard.
His sheer physicality, the movement to lose defenders, and the acceleration to burst into space and calmly slot home. Never in the 30-year history of the Premier League has a player like him signed at this point in their career.
He’s undoubtedly Box Office, and we’re all lucky to have him, but the big news from Saturday’s 4-0 thumping of Bournemouth was the fact that he only touched the ball eight times all game.
Does it matter? Will it hinder his development? Will City care if they are winning games? Let’s find out.
This is Pick-a-Side, where two GOAL journalists go head-to-head on the game’s big issues and small details.
How many goals will Haaland score for Man City this season (all comps)?
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How many goals will Haaland score for Man City this season (all comps)?
“Cutting his touches won’t cut his impact”
Jonathan Smith, GOAL MCFC Correspondent
If you want to talk about Erling Haaland statistics, the best place to start would be goalscoring, after all that’s what he was brought to Manchester City to do.
With two goals in his first two matches of the opening fortnight of the Premier League he’s on his way, but early evidence shows it will take a phenomenal effort to break Mo Salah’s 32-goal single-season record.
Such is City’s dominance in possession, Haaland will face teams like Bournemouth on a regular basis, determined to limit his touches and stifle his impact. Defenses that double-team to stop possession in dangerous areas because of his lethal ability when he gets any sight of goal.
To that end, Scott Parker’s side were successful – except the Norwegian striker drew so much focus that they forgot to stop the other nine outfield players that have the ability to cut them open four times.
Ilkay Gundogan driving through the middle, Kevin De Bruyne and his outside of the boot finishes, Phil Foden ghosting past the centre-backs and Joao Cancelo teasing full-backs in their own box were all helped by the presence of the Nordic Meat Shield.
Haaland was a big, blond distraction, an audible pause in size 12 boots, the football equivalent of composer Claude Debussy talking about the silence between notes. He held off defenders in pairs and packs of three, sent them dizzy with those zig-zag runs, and bounced them off when they tried to go shoulder to shoulder.
And then there was the touch he should have had but didn’t. The ninth that never was. An early shot from Foden saved by Mark Travers when he should have squared the ball for a simple tap-in. Haaland slapped the floor in frustration; Pep Guardiola says the England star has realized that he will always be there for the pass.
Nine touches and a goal wouldn’t have been a headline, eight touches and no goal is.
His first didn’t come until the 18th minute. A falling assist for Gundogan with Jefferson Lerna clinging onto him. Back to goal link up play at its finest, something that the City attacking midfielders will benefit from time and again, bouncing the ball off him and racing clear.
There was a touch to seize on a long ball after barging defenders out of the way, and a scuffed shot after his impressive movement had created the space for Jack Grealish’s cutback in a box packed with defenders.
In a game of such little space and with a target on his back, it’s actually a scary proposition how dangerous Haaland was with so few touches.
Other teams should know that cutting his touches won’t necessarily cut his impact, and it certainly won’t stop City.
“How can he improve if he doesn’t touch the ball?”
Mark Doyle, GOAL Deputy Features Editor
Haaland’s lack of involvement obviously wasn’t an issue for City in Saturday’s routine win over Bournemouth. They coasted to victory and, as Jon has already pointed out above, the Norwegian played his part, constantly occupying at least two defenders, thus creating space for his teammates to exploit.
De Bruyne, Foden and Riyad Mahrez are clearly going to enjoy having Haaland as the focal point of the City attack. Indeed, it was notable that the Belgian was quick to heap praise on the 22-year-old for the way in which he “helped” the team on Saturday, arguing that “you don’t need a lot of touches to be dangerous” .
Very true, of course. But only eight touches, though? One fewer and he’d have equaled the record low set by Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea last season!
Haaland, then, certainly won’t have been happy with his lack of involvement. Remember, he openly admitted that failing to score a hat-trick in the opening-day win at West Ham was “a bit sh*t”. So, what would drawing a blank against Bournemouth have felt like to a man who lives to score goals?
And that’s why it matters. We’re not talking about a Roberto Firmino or an Olivier Giroud here, a striker willing to sacrifice himself for the team with selfless running and pressing. Haaland wants to score in each and every single game – it’s that simple.
8 & 2 – Erling Haaland had just eight touches in Manchester City’s 4-0 victory against Bournemouth today, making just two passes in the 74 minutes he was on the pitch, one of which was from kick off. Acclimatising. pic.twitter.com/9FJdTM8Hr8
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 13, 2022
It remains very early days, of course. Nobody doubts for a second that Haaland will score plenty of goals at the Etihad this season.
However, there may also be quite a few more afternoons of pure frustration, with Haaland forced to watch City’s array of attacking midfielders play around him. As Guardiola himself acknowledged, Bournemouth won’t be the last visiting team to make life difficult for City’s No.9.
“I am Erling Haaland,” he said in an impromptu demonstration on Saturday, taking on the role of his center-forward, “I have three players here (beside him), two players in front of me, so it is difficult, and no space behind because they are in the 18-yard box.
“It is a question of patience, and in the right moment we will find it.”
While admitting that Foden had also erred horribly in not squaring the ball for Haaland 10 minutes in, Guardiola also attributed the Englishman’s oversight to force of habit.
“In the past, with a false nine or another type of player,” he reasoned, “maybe we don’t know that Erling will be there all the time, but this guy will be.”
Guardiola also argued that Haaland will have more space to run into – as he did to such devastating effect at Borussia Dortmund – when they come up against more adventurous sides, particularly away from home.
But how many teams in the Premier League or Champions League actually take the game to City? Liverpool of course. And even they are more effective at the kind of verticality, rapid transitions and direct running that Haaland relishes.
None of this is to say that Haaland can’t adapt to City, and vice versa. Pep is right when he says time and patience are required. One blank doesn’t mean he won’t succeed at the Etihad.
But City are arguably the best possession-based team in the world and, at one point against Bournemouth, Haaland went 27 minutes without touching the ball despite only being on the pitch for 74 minutes.
And that definitely matters. Because Haaland is a thrilling footballer and one who is hoping to take his game to a whole lower level under Guardiola.
How can he do that, though, if he barely touches the ball? City specializes in slick passing moves that end in tap-ins but, as a neutral, I don’t want to just see Haaland only scoring inside the six-yard box. I want to see him improve, to develop into a multi-dimensional centre-forward, one who is regularly involved and gets umpteen opportunities to produce many more of those moments that get passed around WhatsApp groups and shared around the world.
Over to you, Pep…