Manchester City’s tactical plan for Erling Haaland is relatively simple. As it stands, there is no big change of style or formation in mind, they will just ask the formidable striker to adapt his game slightly.
Using a false nine has helped City win the last two Premier League titles, so Pep Guardiola’s plan is to get Haaland to slot into that set-up and smooth off some of the rough edges on what he does outside the opposition penalty area. Drop off the front line, play short, fast balls to his team-mates and then sprint in behind and get in the box, where he can do damage.
A little like Harry Kane does (although with more focus on getting into the box), and it was the Tottenham striker Guardiola was so keen to sign last summer, precisely for his ability outside the area as well as in.
That’s not quite 21-year-old Haaland’s game just yet but that is where the adaptation is planned to begin, and if it does not go well then the team may do more to adapt to him.
Ironically, it is a style of play already suited to the less-heralded No 9 arriving at the Etihad this summer: Julian Alvarez.
City signed the 22-year-old for about £ 14 million in January and then loaned him back to Argentine club River Plate until July 7, the day after their Copa Libertadores last-16 second leg at home to Velez Sarsfield.
River progressing to the quarter-finals would have triggered a clause allowing Alvarez to stay until their run in South America’s version of the Champions League ends – potentially not until after the final on October 29. However, City have paid their own clause – a further 26 1.26 million – to ensure he is in Manchester to participate in their pre-season.
It is an exciting prospect, not least because of the six goals he scored against Alianza Lima of Peru on Wednesday in River’s final game of the Libertadores’ group stage.
– CONMEBOL Libertadores (@Libertadores) May 26, 2022
On the day Haaland was doing his media interviews and kit photoshoots at City’s training ground – and by all accounts living up to his reputation of not being much of a talker – Alvarez offered more than a glimpse of his potential.
Admittedly, River topped the group with 16 points out of 18 while visitors Allianz finished bottom with one point from their six. However, each of his six goals in the 8-1 hammering showed what the seven-cap Argentina international is all about.
For the first, Alvarez won the ball back high up the pitch and sprinted in behind the defense.
The second came from a smart run on the blindside of his marker.
The hat-trick goal – still in the first half – came after he dropped off the front line to receive a pass from midfield, and then, when he realized he was in acres of space, unleashed a powerful shot from range.
For number four, Alvarez closed down the keeper, won the ball and passed it into an empty net.
The fifth was another aggressive run in behind the defense, topped off with a delicate, clipped finish…
… And the sixth was a devastating finish after arriving into the box, not dissimilar to that Sergio Aguero goal against Queens Park Rangers a decade ago.
So, not bad then.
Alvarez is an aggressive presser, takes corners and free kicks, and those runs in behind, either straight towards the box or down the channels, would allow City to stretch the game and create spaces for their midfielders. He really springs to life when there is a chance to get in behind, either running off the ball or trying to carry it past a defender.
City have been able to stretch teams without having a traditional No 9 (for example in the game against Wolves recently, using wingers and a midfield runner) but through the middle they have generally used Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and the now-sold Ferran Torres .
None of those three is a particularly clinical finisher and two are not even true strikers, so Alvarez’s arrival is certainly exciting for City.
It is even fair to say that, in terms of playing style alone, he is more suited to City’s game than Haaland is.
What City want Haaland to do, Alvarez has grown up doing. He has been playing as a false nine for Marcelo Gallardo’s high-tempo River side, dropping off the front and linking up with his team-mates via quick, first-time passes, then darting into the box.
When he signed for City four months ago, the headline stat was that he had scored 18 goals in 21 league games last season. In the 2022 campaign, which started in February, it’s nine in 13 plus six more in the six Libertadores group matches.
Of course, that half-dozen all came in one appearance, and his domestic tally includes two hat-tricks, which means there are long spells without a goal.
And the word from City is: Curb your enthusiasm.
They know exactly how talented Alvarez is – after conducting a global search for a new striker last summer, he was the man identified – but they do not know yet how he will adapt to a new league and new culture.
That’s why they want him in Manchester for the first day of pre-season, so they can run the rule over him.
If he performs well in training and matches – City play Mexico’s Club America in Houston, Texas (July 20) and Bayern Munich in Green Bay, Wisconsin (July 23) during their tour of the US, with talk of a game against Barcelona at the Nou Camp plus the Community Shield against Liverpool on July 31 – he can expect to be regularly involved with the first team.
“We have had many offers from clubs to loan Julian Alvarez, but he is not going to leave,” City CEO Ferran Soriano said last week. “He will do the pre-season with us and I think he will stay.”
It was even suggested in the winter that Alvarez could be the man to step up if Haaland did not arrive from Borussia Dortmund, although that would have involved a leap into the unknown. That’s because, right now, he is an unknown quantity.
On paper, he is the perfect City striker, one primed to play both outside and inside the box in the way that Haaland will have to get to grips with. But the leap from Argentina to England, with no ‘halfway’ spell in Spain, Italy or Portugal in the middle to get used to the European game, is considered huge. If he does thrive immediately, it should be regarded as a major achievement.
Haaland is far more of a known quantity, despite being six months younger than Alvarez. He has moved clubs, countries and leagues several times in his career already, has Champions League experience, can speak English and, of course, was born in England. His dad, Alfie, is also a former City player who knows the area perfectly. And it helps that the Norwegian is a phenomenal player.
His job will be to adjust part of his game to ensure he continues his formidable scoring record – 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund – as soon as he arrives at City, and all eyes will be on him.
Although Alvarez has all the ability to do exactly what City needs, his route is less certain and he will be in Haaland’s shadow, at least initially. That will remove any urgency surrounding his own adaptation, and remove a lot of pressure too.
Even if it does not go well for the Argentine at first, City have a fine player who could thrive in a European league on loan, if necessary, or he could continue to work quietly in Manchester while Haaland is the headline act. He could even be sold for a profit if it got to that stage in the future.
But if it goes well, City might have the perfect striker on their hands – and not just the big blonde one.
(Top photo: Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)