Haaland is the most brilliant, successful flop in football history; City really should have signed Kane

Dave Tickner
Harry Kane and Erling Haaland tussle during a Premier League game between Tottenham and Manchester City
Harry Kane is the fourth-most expensive striker ever

Manchester City may have bigger things to worry about right now than the trials and tribulations of a striker with 25 Premier League goals, but the Haaland Paradox is becoming one of the more diverting sub-plots of an unusual season.

It’s pretty hard to make a coherent case that a player scoring 1.25 goals a game is making his team worse, but it also seems to be undeniably, fundamentally and statistically true.

To the extent that the sheer number of goals he’s scored are themselves even becoming a problem, because it’s not easy to drop a player who scored a hat-trick <checks notes> two games ago.

But Manchester City have lost something for the inclusion of world football’s most currently outrageous goal machine. It’s not quite true to say Haaland offers nothing but goals, but it’s too damned close for a team like City. They scored lots of goals before he was here, they just shared them around a bit more. And they also controlled games far more effectively and consistently.

The price they’ve paid for Haaland’s goals is the ceding of midfield control. And it’s a price that’s too high for a team with Manchester City’s ethos.

Haaland hasn’t even solved the one specific problem that City had – the occasional games where well-organised defences frustrated all City’s pretty patterns and intricacy. They still draw at home with Everton; they still lose without scoring at Spurs.

Haaland is the most brilliant and successful flop in football history, his own astonishing stats dragging the rest of his team down despite it all. It wouldn’t have been the case at any other club. Nowhere else had such a high baseline as City, no other club had a method that was so brilliant and yet required such specific skills from its component parts.

It can famously take players a long time to get to grips with Pepball. Jack Grealish is only just coming to terms with it now after a painful 18 months. At Spurs, he was both City’s most potent attacking threat (albeit that’s faint praise) and made multiple crucial defensive interventions to cut off Spurs counter-attacks.

There’s also a clear sense that City are still coming to terms with the specific nature of the weapon they now possess. Again at Spurs it was noticeable how often he made runs that weren’t spotted by his team-mates, with Kevin De Bruyne’s inexplicable absence from the first hour of the game perhaps an aggravating factor.

The good news for Haaland and City is that things are likely to improve for them and their 25-goal striker as they get better acquainted. As long as City don’t get RELEGATED, which they obviously won’t.

But it’s still hard to shake the notion that the very ideal striker for this City team was lined up against them on Sunday afternoon and scored the match-winning, record-breaking goal.

We’ll perhaps never know quite how hard City tried to sign him in the summer of 2021 but we’ll always maintain it wasn’t hard enough. Kane and his brother certainly did their bit.

You can bang on about value and sell-on and all the rest of it, but in a team that doesn’t really need a striker, you need one who isn’t just a striker. Kane is a nine, a 10, very often an eight, occasionally a seven and sometimes a six. And those aren’t his L’Equipe scores.

If Kane is your striker, you don’t need to worry about a dip in the passing quality when the ball hits the front. You don’t need to worry that your clever attacking players around and behind him will find themselves starved of opportunity. You don’t need to worry that even if you have 65% of the ball and 70% of the territory your centre-forward will somehow still be isolated and unreachable.

And we’re not even sure that Kane in that City side scores that many fewer goals than Haaland anyway. Maybe a few, sure, but he’s managed 17 in 22 games for a Spurs side that this season is often wilfully and infuriatingly shit.

There was a definite sliding doors moment with Kane’s missed move to City. It would most obviously have brought him certain trophies. It might also have elevated his game to a level even beyond the absurd one at which it already sits.

On the other hand, he wouldn’t be Spurs’ all-time leading goalscorer, an achievement that is easy to dismiss with dreary worra trophyism but is an astonishing feat and one that clearly meant an awful lot to him.

On the other other hand, if Kane had joined City then Arsenal wouldn’t be winning the league. It’s a funny old game, as a former Tottenham all-time leading goalscorer might have said.