In Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth last Saturday, Erling Haaland touched the ball eight times in the 73 minutes he was on the pitch.
For 27 minutes in the second half, he didn’t touch the ball. Rico Lewis, the young substitute who came on in the 82nd minute, managed 50% more touches than Haaland. Which means a lot but perhaps most of all suggests just how radical City’s tactical change is underway this season.
But first, it might be worth asking why Haaland touched the ball so rarely in this specific game. During those eight touches, Haaland had two shots, including one on target, and a key pass (his only other pass was the kick-off early in the second half).
His long period without the ball came when the game was effectively over and City were happy to control the ball. Even leaving aside his indirect involvement – the players he removed, the space he created – Haaland had a clear and positive direct involvement in the game when City were attacking.
His two previous games for City, when he played the full match, had been different. Against Liverpool in the Community Shield, he managed 16 touches but managed three shots, including one on target, and two key assists. In the Premier League opener against West Ham, he managed 32 touches, including five shots, netting two goals (one from a penalty); it looked much more like his average touches per game at RB Salzburg and Borussia Dortmund.
These are the early days, but it seems unlikely that Liverpool and Bournemouth games will prove typical. Against Liverpool, although some of the reaction was probably overdone, neither Haaland nor City played well. Although he missed two decent chances, the bigger problem seemed to be that he was running errands and the midfielders, conditioned on Pep Guardiola’s patient buildup, couldn’t find him. By West Ham, that had changed, although there may not be many opportunities to make that kind of run behind the defensive line against teams who sit deep against City.
Against Bournemouth, the problem was partly that there was little space for Haaland, with a narrow back three and two midfielders playing just in front of him – although even then, by drawing defenders towards him, he opened up the possibility of space in wider areas.
Most important for City, however, was the proximity to Haaland Ilkay Gündogan who ended up playing – surely a legacy of a team used to playing with a false 9, so midfielders have to push into the space that would usually be occupied by the attacker. It didn’t matter in a game City were winning comfortably, but against a top level opponent it could.
But even if those issues are ironed out, and even if Haaland won’t come up against defending sides as often as Bournemouth has, it represents a significant shift in approach for Guardiola. He habitually operated his centre-forward almost like a midfielder – indeed, often used a midfielder in the role – taking the ball, playing plenty of passes, facilitating ruthless tangles of possession.
To move away from that to a more orthodox central striker who wants the ball to be played fast in front of him, who can play well barely touching the ball, represents a major break. Even though 32 touches against West Ham turn out to be the norm, it’s still around 30% less than Sergio Agüero’s average per game in his time under Guardiola and there was always a feeling that Guardiola wanted Agüero be more involved in the general game.
So why would Guardiola take an attacking formula that had made City the Premier League’s top scorers for the past five seasons and drastically change it? Perhaps it’s just that the Premier League no longer represents success for City: more significant are the repeated near misses in the Champions League, the failures to finish off Real Madrid, Chelsea, Lyon and Tottenham despite the spells of these games when City were at the top. ; Perhaps, for all the complexity of Guardiola’s positional play, there are times when football is as simple as needing someone who can put the ball in the net.
But there may be a larger trend here. Liverpool signed Darwin Núñez, while Arsenal started using Gabriel Jesus as a fairly orthodox 9. It’s too early to be definitive, and to some extent the problem may be the characteristics of a small group of top players, but that could be there has been a recognition that after years of diversifying the attack and focus on the press, there is still value in more old-fashioned centre-forward virtues.
For Guardiola to admit such a major change at this stage of his career is remarkable and suggests how open he remains to new ideas, how aware he is of the danger of stagnation and the need for innovation.
This is the basis of the theory of development laid out by advertising executive Alex Faickney Osborn in his 1948 book Your creative power. “The whole theory of creative tension, he says, rests on the belief that in all respects and in all relations we find two elements which we cannot separate; first, the principle of change; second, the principle of stability. The first principle is the basis of our idea of evolution, growth and progress. Without it, the world could not exist. The second principle is the basis of our idea of balance and permanence.
But in a way Haaland’s signing is a return to old principles – one foreshadowed, perhaps, by signing a dribbler at Jack Grealish the summer before. Guardiola’s greatest achievement was at Barcelona, where the finely tuned system was challenged and augmented by the individual talents of Lionel Messi.
Structure is vital in football, and no one gains anything with anarchy, but it can also be that a systematized approach leads to a reliance on order, so that a team finds it difficult to react in the game. ‘adversity. The sparks of true brilliance may be generated by this tension between apparent opposites, between old and new, between a strict system and anarchic individualism.