Is Haaland Pep’s missing puzzle piece?
Suggestions that Manchester City need to sign a striker intensified after the team’s latest failure to win the Champions League, but reports indicate a deal for Erling Haaland is inching closer.
Haaland, who is still just 21, is already one of the most dangerous strikers in world football. The prospect of him leading the line for a City side that stands on the brink of winning the Premier League for the fourth time in five years is frightening for Liverpool and City’s other major rivals.
Here is how the Leeds-born Norway international could be a missing piece of the puzzle for City.
A change in system?
City’s pursuit of England captain Harry Kane last summer suggested Pep Guardiola wanted to bring in a more traditional striker to build his attack around after the departure of Sergio Aguero.
But no agreement could be reached with Tottenham, despite Kane making it clear he wanted to leave his boyhood club, and so City continued to operate with their usual false nine system, having also considered moves for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi only to complete neither.
Guardiola has used a range of different attackers in that role and the depth and flexibility in his squad has ensured City have still scored 89 goals already in the Premier League this season.
The seemingly imminent arrival of Haaland, though, will give City a more typical focal point. With a €75 million release clause still in Haaland’s contract, he will not break the bank for City either – although it is not as if finances are really a point of any concern for the Premier League leaders.
Haaland’s goalscoring record is incredible. He has hit 21 goals in the Bundesliga this season, with a total tally of 36 goals in 38 appearances for club and country in the 2021-22 campaign.
There are no sure things in elite football but Haaland is as close to a guarantee of goals as they come. He has hit 15 goals in 17 international appearances for Norway and, at both RB Salzburg and Dortmund, has found the net at an extraordinary ratio of almost a goal every single game.
It is not as simple as bolting a world-class striker into a world-class team and expecting fireworks, however. Guardiola craves control above all else and packing his team with star midfielders is the way he usually aims to achieve this. Haaland’s build-up play and pressing is more than adequate, and improving, but City will have to readjust to playing with a number nine.
Time may be needed for Haaland to adapt to Guardiola’s unique demands, while City will have to get used to having a more physical presence in the final third, rather than another playmaker.
On pure numbers, with Newcastle United the latest team to feel the wrath of City’s devastating attack, they do not need a striker. But Haaland could make the difference in the key moments.
Delivering the Champions League
With Guardiola yet to follow Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp in committing to a new contract, as things stand the 2022-23 season will be his last at City, though the club will no doubt be doing as much as possible to persuade the manager to stay on for a couple more years at least.
He will be more desperate than ever to reclaim the Champions League before leaving City, no matter what he tells the media. It is now 11 years since the last of his two European crowns with Barcelona and, regardless of the six league titles that have come since Guardiola left Spain, it is all too easy for cynics to point out he could lean on a peak era Leo Messi back at Camp Nou.
Haaland is not Messi, but he has a similar ability to come up clutch in key moments. Aged 19, he scored a hat-trick on his Champions League debut for Salzburg in 2019 – ridiculously, it was his fourth treble in nine games at the time – and became the youngest player in the competition’s history to reach 20 goals, adding yet another individual record to his impressive career to date.
City could and probably should have put Real Madrid away in the first leg of the semi-final. They wasted a string of clear-cut chances to extend their advantage and the idea is a clinical finisher such as Haaland would have helped Guardiola’s men to put the game out of Madrid’s sight.
It is not quite that easy, though. City may not have controlled the game against Madrid at the Etihad as overwhelmingly had they used a different system with a more traditional striker, which means they might not have created so many great chances. This is the paradox of football.
Delivering the Champions League will be the aim for Haaland and Guardiola and, on paper, what they could achieve at City is a terrifying prospect for the rest of the game. But the beauty of football is its unpredictability. Haaland may appear an obvious final piece to finally complete the jigsaw for City, but changing the system to fit him in could backfire in unpredictable ways.