If Erling Haaland has more games like Saturday’s 3-1 Community Shield loss to Liverpool, where he missed two clear chances, you can expect the knee-jerk reactions to pour in like spam after leaving your email on questionable website:
“It’s not the Bundesliga, it’s the next level.”
“Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City works better without a recognized striker.”
“There is too much pressure on the biggest stage in the world of football.”
So let’s get out there before things get a little silly. And, yes, they might get really dumb, real quick.
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For starters, it’s obviously a game. Ninety-nine minutes into a glorified friendly – not even at Wembley, but at the King Power Stadium.
Sample size, anyone? Do you need a reminder that last season’s great centre-forward Romelu Lukaku scored four goals in his first four appearances for Chelsea and then didn’t score again until December? And you know how things went for him at Stamford Bridge, don’t you?
August football is just that. August football (July in this case, but the point stands.) After three league games last season, Nuno Espirito Santo was perfect and top of the league, while Mikel Arteta was last with zero points and one goal difference of minus nine. Guess who found himself a hair’s breadth away from the Champions League places and with a big transfer budget this summer and who was sacked on Halloween and is now spending the summer in Saudi Arabia?
You might also want to consider that Haaland was playing against what was the stingiest defense in the Premier League last season, led by a guy named Virgil van Dijk, and he won’t face them every week. And, yes, grizzled snap dealers will tell you he was acquired to win big games against top opponents. But that’s the kind of comment most of us passed on when we realized you get the same number of points beating Fulham as you do beating Liverpool.
As for his performance, he only got it after three chances, but they were good odds. As in high-quality chances, as evidenced by his aggregate xG of 1.09, more than the entire Liverpool squad managed in the first 83 minutes, until Mohamed Salah’s penalty.
For the former, Haaland ranked Andy Robertson. To his credit, Robertson did what he could to discourage him, but the man-child is just bigger and stronger and still got his shot.
For the second, he probably should have gone with his right foot or his head. Thank you, Captain Retrospective. But he probably still expected to score.
And for the third, he found himself wide open just steps away from a prone Adrian and somehow managed to get the ball off the crossbar.
You usually worry when people aren’t out of luck. It was not his problem on Saturday. In fact, while the fine print disclaimer still applies (“past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results”), he’s a guy who has consistently far exceeded expected goals, season after season. The 105 goals he has scored since 2019 have come on an xG of just 81.56. In very simple terms – for those who haven’t yet understood what xGs (expected goals) are – if the average footballer had taken exactly the same types of shots in exactly the same situations as Haaland over the past three years, you would have expected them to score 81½ goals, 23½ less than Haaland. Players sometimes surpass xG for a season or two; very few make it three years in a row unless they are quite exceptional. What he is.
But perhaps the most telling moments came on those occasions when he didn’t go near the ball. On a few occasions, his arcing run from deep was not immediately found by Kevin De Bruyne, or his flurry in the six-yard box was missed by a wide teammate who opted for a reduction, the bread motion and butter from the Guardiola era.
Blame Haaland for doing the wrong race or doing it at the wrong time? Blame his teammates for being on autopilot rather than picking up on his movements? Neither. Just accept the fact that chemistry is built over time and it’s hard to disengage the autopilot that has made City so successful. He reaffirmed what we already know: that his movement and ability to find space is exceptional. All it takes is for his teammates to change Guardiola’s AI game plan to take into account that there is a big, fast and strong centre-forward up front, not an n-type ° 10 recycled that falls and wanders widely.
This is the other reason to have faith: Guardiola. He knew who he was signing, he knows the weapon Haaland can be. And it’s not just goals and movement, it’s areas where he can still improve, like heading, and areas that are untapped, like passing and creating. Yes, the last time Pep dropped a giant Nordic striker in his team it messed up the chemistry and it didn’t work. It was Barcelona in 2009-10 and they had to settle for winning La Liga and coming within a goal of the Champions League final (poor darlings). But Haaland is not Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Pep 13 years ago is not Pep today. He’s learned a thing or two since, as evidenced by the fact that when he had a dominant centre-forward like Robert Lewandowski at Bayern Munich, he won titles and broke records.
But perhaps the main reason to believe is that Haaland only turned 22 last month and has a contract until 2027. He has only had a full season under one manager for a only once in his career (and that was Marco Rose). Barring an unlikely walkout from Guardiola, he will have several more seasons from Pep, and that can only help him grow. If he’s only average this season, that’s fine too, because of the kind of club Manchester City are at the moment. They will always be more than competitive. Heck, look at their most expensive player of all time, Jack Grealish, who arrived a summer ago: he didn’t exactly uproot trees, but no one was burning him in effigy or knocking the way to his door entrance with pitchforks and torches.
That’s not to say City fans aren’t passionate or demanding, it’s just to say that after four Premier League titles in five seasons they have enough capital in the bank to be patient and don’t need neither a savior nor a scapegoat.
Want some pressure? Try to be the 21-year-old with the mega-release clause who should carry an underachieving, injury-riddled Borussia Dortmund past 80,000 fans and the yellow wall every other weekend. Haaland has been there and done it.
If anything, Saturday confirmed what we already know about him. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s fearless, and he has an almost supernatural sense of place and time. It’s a lot for Pep.