Losing the Community Shield is easy to dismiss, but Pep Guardila has work to do after Manchester City and Erling Haaland were undone by Liverpool.
Sound the alarms and paint a red cross on the main entrance to The Etihad Stadium; Erling Haaland is a disastrous signing for Manchester City and may single-handedly crash the entire Abu Dhabi project into the sea. Liverpool will win the Premier League by 20 points, with a display of football so sparkling that Merseyside will be granted full independence from the United Kingdom.
Or, in other words, the Premier League is (almost) back, and it doesn’t feel as though much has changed, even if quite a lot actually has.
Like a lot of trophies these days, whether the Community Shield is a ‘glorified pre-season friendly’ or a piece of ‘major silverware’ does have a tendency to depend on whether you’ve won it or not.
But if we strip away the meta-meaning of such a match, the message sent from The King Power Stadium was loud and clear: on the basis of the available evidence, Liverpool look considerably better prepared for the new Premier League season than Manchester City.
In a sense, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both of these clubs have made significant changes to their attacking structures for the new season, but have gone about it in subtly different ways. Liverpool brought Luis Diaz in at the end of the January transfer window and then strengthened further with the acquisition of Darwin Nunez, while Sadio Mane left for Bayern Munich. Evolution over revolution? Probably, and the memories of Nunez being castigated as ‘the new Andy Carroll’ after a miss in their friendly – and there was no doubt whatsoever that this match was a ‘friendly’ – against Manchester United already seem long-forgotten.
Manchester City have followed a different tack. It’s been clear all summer that they are rebuilding the way in which they attack. Not only has football’s Ivan Drago arrived from a remote log cabin in Siberia, but Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling have departed for Arsenal and Chelsea respectively.
A False Nine has been replaced by Definitely A Number Nine, and it’s somewhat inevitable that changing the system in this way will take time to bed in.
And while Guardiola may not be overly concerned about this all clicking into place in the end, it is equally true that the new Premier League season starts in less than a week’s time and that, in a league in which more than 90 points is the minimum requirement to have a chance of winning the title – as has been the case over three of the last four seasons – points dropped in August count just as much as points dropped in April or May.
But there can be no sugar-coating that Haaland’s performance against Liverpool was pretty abject. There is, due to his size alone, something distinctly lumbering about his gait, but at The King Power Stadium he seemed to be playing a different game to the rest of his team, and the figures very much speak for themselves; 16 touches all evening, no headers or interceptions won, seven completed passes.
These figures would be pretty poor in any professional team. In the case of Manchester City, the possession boa constrictors of the Premier League, they have an almost other-worldly look about them.
And in a moment of visual metaphor so perfect as to be agonising, in stoppage-time at the end of a match that was by this time, whether it meant anything or not, already lost, Haaland spurned a chance to at least undo some of the damage done to his reputation by the previous 90-and-a-bit minutes by driving the ball wildly at the crossbar from five yards out with Liverpool’s goalkeeper Adrian prostrate on the ground and the goal at his mercy. Converting this chance wouldn’t have completely undone the 90 minutes that preceded it, but it might have settled a few nerves at least.
Manchester City have got plenty of insulation against panic. Julian Alvarez didn’t suffer like Haaland did against Liverpool. He came on, scored a goal and looked like a reasonable fit for Pep’s jigsaw. That, Pep may have reflected after the game, is what a debut for one of his teams should look like.
And the truth remains that if he can combine a system that fits that the way that Haaland plays with one that works for Alvarez, Manchester City still have frightening attacking capability and can score goals from all over the pitch. They had seven players reach double figures in all competitions last season, and only two of those have left the club.
But repeating the mantra that ‘this is only a glorified friendly’ is only going to get anybody so far, because the bottom line about Erling Haaland’s performance for Manchester City in the Community Shield is that, while it’s completely fair to not consider this match to be of any great consequence, this lack of consequence doesn’t render what everybody witnessed irrelevant.
Haaland is a fantastic player. There’s nothing new in saying that. He’s only just turned 22 years old, and has years to perfect his game. And it should be remembered that Liverpool are not like most of the other teams that he will be playing against this season. He will find other Premier League defences to be more forgiving.
There’s clearly work to do. Players can be a bad fit for a team or a system, and the very first issue that Pep Guardiola now has to identify is whether this is just a matter of ‘bedding in’ or whether this performance was a sign of a broader incompatibility between player and team.
How much should those systems be bent to fit the strengths of one player? How much can that player be brought into what Pep already has planned? These questions may come to determine the first few weeks of the Premier League season, and consequently the ultimate destination of this season’s league title.