‘Everyone is saying the same thing about Erling Haaland’ is a headline you can probably expect to see this weekend. Rodri saved him and Manchester City.
Two things were firmly established at Bramall Lane on Sunday afternoon: Erling Haaland is human after all; and Manchester City can still do What Champions Do.
The former has been the subject of much debate since Manchester City signed him. But against Sheffield United, the legitimacy of Haaland’s cyborgicity was under particular and peculiar scrutiny. Missed chances, uncharacteristically emotional reactions and a general fallibility marked his performance.
“He is human after all!” guffawed each and every commentator as he missed a first-half penalty after John Egan’s handball.
“It turns out he is human!” the banter social media accounts chortled in unison as he slammed a Kyle Walker cut-back against the advertising boards from a matter of yards.
“That gentleman there appears to be mortal!” all our fathers collectively observed as the Norwegian’s dink was thwarted by Wes Foderingham after being played through by Mateo Kovacic.
It was equally hilarious and not at all boring as our viewership was reduced to each of Haaland’s poor shots or heavy touches being immediately followed with a slightly too rough pat on the back as a spittle-flecked half-joke that was barely funny a year ago was roared into our faces. He is very good at football, you see. Almost robotically efficient. But he was a bit rubbish for a lot of this game. Because he is human. After all.
Not even a well-taken header from Jack Grealish’s delightfully inviting cross could completely reverse the tide. Haaland’s relieved reaction to scoring the opener betrayed another frustrating 90 minutes which, not for the first time, were rescued by Rodri.
Haaland would likely have been blamed had Jayden Bogle’s shock equaliser earned Sheffield United a draw – and the forward was certainly culpable for the Blades having an opportunity to claw themselves back into the game with one moment of fortune – but it was ultimately Walker’s baffling mistake which had to be rectified. His backheel to keep the ball in play in his own area eventually led to Bogle’s error deflecting past Ederson as Bramall Lane erupted.
Foden’s subsequent introduction was likely planned but his assist for Rodri was not. It took three minutes for Walker to atone for his error by robbing Yasser Larouci to keep the ball in play and fizz a pass into Foden’s feet, the England international’s poor control actually setting up Rodri’s pristine strike into the top corner.
It would be typical outcome bias to state Manchester City were never going to cede their advantage a second time; almost immediately Oli McBurnie clipped a sumptuous ball over to Anel Ahmedhodzic at the back post, the defender producing a finish befitting his position and letting the visitors escape without punishment.
But this was not a poor Manchester City performance by any metric bar their final touch. The narrative was set as soon as Pep Guardiola, absent due to surgery, put Foden back on the bench. Without Kevin de Bruyne the belief in many quarters was that the champions were too lacking in creativity, too controlling without any edge or penetration.
It was nonsense. They had chances and simply struggled to convert them. Walker and Kovacic both set up those huge opportunities for Haaland. Manchester City’s second goal came after the Norwegian flung himself at a brilliant Bernardo Silva cross but failed to make contact. Foderingham saved brilliantly from Julian Alvarez. Seven Manchester City players ended the game with two or more key passes; a lack of inventiveness or imagination was not the issue.
Sheffield United were excellent, organised and diligent. They doubled and often even tripled up to thwart and annoy Haaland, the Norwegian’s desperation to miss another penalty only increasing with each tangle of limbs in a congested box.
That his last contribution was a bungled penalty-area backheel in stoppage time which got caught in his own feet as opposed to reaching the intended target of Foden was fitting. He’s human after all, is Haaland. Rodri was the robot all along.