Four games into the Premier League season, it’s clear that Manchester City and Erling Haaland have yet to fully click. It’s almost like a ballet troupe hiring a dancer as a lead performer whose only experience is breakdancing; the team advances at one pace and Haaland at another. A period of adaptation was inevitable, and you have to imagine that as everyone gets used to it, the disparate parts will eventually sync up and Man City really get going. Which is pretty much the scariest thought imaginable, because despite being slightly out of step with his teammates, Haaland still stomps all comers.
Has Haaland played a single full and well-rounded game so far this season? I think the answer is no. For long stretches of every game, it seems like Haaland doesn’t really know how to fit in with what his teammates are doing, and most of his teammates don’t know how to play to the Norwegian’s favorite beats either. (Unsurprisingly, Kevin De Bruyne is the one getting it already.) You can see that in the rarity with which Haaland contributes directly to the game. So far, he’s averaging just over 23 touches per 90 minutes, against around 31 touches on average at Borussia Dortmund, for a Man City who average around 10% more possession than their former Dortmund sides. (All stats via Football Reference.) Haaland’s game has never been about his volume of actions on the ball – even 31 touches are particularly low for your typical elite striker. But the decline in his contributions, coupled with the rarity of someone taking advantage of his greatest strength by sending him chasing a ball into open space, is proof that City have yet to figure out how to get the most out of them. of their new superstar.
The thing is, none of that really matters. Take Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace for example. Palace capitalized on two ill-defended set pieces to take a 2-0 lead after just 21 minutes. Haaland spent most of the game somewhat on the periphery of the action, only touching the ball 18 times, fewer than any other starter on the pitch except for Palace winger Tyrick Mitchell, who suffered the injury after 57 minutes. Nonetheless, seven of Haaland’s 18 touches were shots, and three of those shots were goals. His hat trick propelled City to a 4-2 comeback win.
For the season, Haaland has just 85 total touches, but he leads the Premier League in shots (18) and goals (6). And while he doesn’t drop and kick the ball around as is usually expected of Pep Guardiola’s strikers, he does help the team’s play even without intervening himself. His reputation as a goalscorer causes panicked defensive lines to focus the majority of their attention on trying to contain him, leaving fewer eyes and legs to follow the movements of other citizens. Likewise, the sheer threat of his speed means that when Haaland turns his head towards the opposing goal, defenses retreat another 10 yards in fear, freeing up spaces for City’s creators to jump into and shape their attacks. . Plus, there’s the invaluable confidence that comes with knowing that no matter the time, place or context, City are never far short of a goal or three as long as Haaland is there.
Man City need to improve, need to mix their game more effectively with Haaland’s. Haaland’s skill set is too varied and his impact when fully utilized is too great for City to maintain this current model where Haaland is essentially a passenger in the action until the team enters the penalty area, when Haaland can kick the ball. in the net. It would be a lesser role than Haaland deserves and create a lesser squad than they could be. And I think City will improve, if only because Haaland forces the team to adapt by continuing to reward balls with goals.
But the best testament to his talent is what he’s doing right now, when he and City aren’t moving at the same pace and yet he keeps scoring goals for fun. He’s the kind of player the Premier League has in their hands, the one who is the best even when he’s not at his best. And it’s only just begun.