Is Erling Haaland really an asset to Manchester City? It might seem counterintuitive to say that a player with 25 league goals and 31 in all competitions might not be an asset, but then Haaland is an exception to the normal rules.
For a start he’s not actually a footballer in the complete sense; he’s just a finisher. That’s all he does. He’s amazingly good at it, but that’s pretty much all you’ll get from him and it’s all that is seemingly asked of him. He does track back occasionally, and defends at corners, but clearly he’s in the team to score goals, so spends most of his time lurking on the shoulder of the defenders. So, to put it crudely, if he’s not scoring he’s not contributing much. He usually has very few touches per game and though he’s made three assists, that’s just one every 547 minutes.
After over half the season, it’s quite clear that City are effectively playing every game he’s on the pitch with nine or nine-and-a-half outfielders. They are also having to set themselves up just to give him a chance to score in order to justify his selection.
On Sunday, Guardiola started with a 2-3-4-1, with the one being the big Norwegian. It fluctuated all game but essentially Haaland did nothing and looked increasingly frustrated at his impotence. He can get no satisfaction from his performance unless he scores because he’s not doing anything else. The first whispers of his happiness are emerging.
But what about those goals, eh? Yeah, well, goals are not everything. Essentially, all Haaland has done is score all the goals that others would likely have scored anyway. City have always scored lots of goals, usually from multiple sources. Not anymore. After 21 games last season, City had 53 Premier League goals and this season they’ve got 53 too, nearly half by Haaland.
So there’s been no change in the numberof goals scored. But having to accommodate Haaland seems to have had a deleterious effect on the defence. Last year after 21 games they’d let in just 13, this year that number is 21. It’s far from impossible to ascribe nearly all of this to Haaland’s presence disrupting the equilibrium of the team. After 21 games last season City had won 17; this time around they’ve won just 14.
Football is a holistic game, a team game, it isn’t an individual sport, but Haaland’s presence makes it more about the glorification of the individual. And isn’t that a very un-Guardiola thing? Isn’t he all about the machine? All about the many and complex cogs that make the whole thing function? Just pulling the lever marked goals undermines that philosophy.
But the facts don’t lie. City are eight points worse off this season after 21 games than last. That’s quite a marked shift downwards. Their goal difference is +32 now; it was +40 last season.
In the same way Cristiano Ronaldo was hailed for his goalscoring prowess in his second coming at Manchester United by people who couldn’t see past the goals – and there were plenty of pundits who couldn’t – but actually made the team worse, the same mistake is being made with Haaland.
Goals win games, as goes the cliche and that’s true, but nothing in football exists in isolation and if having to service a striker to score those goals makes you weaker all across the pitch, causing you to ship far more goals than you otherwise would, then the record-breaking striker isn’t an asset, he’s actually a burden. And if anyone knows that, it’ll be Guardiola.