It took Erling Haaland just 12 minutes to score his first Manchester City goal. The Norwegian will surely score more consequential goals for his new team than a pre-season winner against Bayern Munich in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but the manner of his debut strike revealed a lot about how he will be utilised as City’s new frontman.
The departure of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, coupled with the arrival of Haaland, has changed the dynamic of Manchester City’s frontline. Previously, it was the case that forward thrust would come in the wide areas. Under Pep Guardiola, the cut-back and finish from the byline became something of a hallmark of City’s play.
Now, though, the forward thrust will primarily come from Haaland whose entire game is designed to get him in behind opposition defences as frequently as possible. It might take some time for Haaland to get used to his new team, and for City to get used to their new centre forward. The support system around the 22-year-old will be important.
This is where Jack Grealish will almost certainly have a more significant role for Manchester City this season. As an attack-minded midfielder who likes to create with the ball at his feet, the England international will be expected to get close to Haaland. The Norwegian will need Grealish to supply him with crosses and through balls.
It was from a Grealish pass from out wide that Haaland scored his maiden Manchester City goal against Bayern Munich and Guardiola surely took encouragement from the early signs of an understanding between the pair. They will be expected to link up many more times over the course of the campaign.
Of course, it won’t be solely down to Grealish to ensure the success of Haaland at the Etihad Stadium. Phil Foden will also be charged with supplying the Norwegian striker. He too will need to get close to Haaland to ensure he isn’t left isolated at the head of Manchester City’s attack. His creativity will be just as important as Grealish’s.
However, Foden is a more versatile midfielder than Grealish. He is capable of playing in a deeper role or even as a ‘False Nine’ through the middle. Grealish, on the other hand, needs a purpose in this Manchester City team and the signing of Haaland might just have given him that. It’s not just that Grealish is integral to the success of Haaland, Haaland is integral to the success of Grealish.
Much has been made of Haaland’s profile as a centre forward and his suitability for City, a possession-based team who demand that their number nine is more than just a penalty box finisher. “I’ve been watching a lot of City games over the last years and they’ve been without a striker, so of course I’ve been seeing myself in these [goalscoring] situations, so I’m not surprised,” the Norwegian said after netting his first goal at Lambeau Field.
Many made the argument that Guardiola needed a true number nine to take his City team to the next level, but now he has one it’s not guaranteed the ploy will be a success. He must consider how his team will change as a unit with Haaland up front. Manchester City have taken a calculated risk.
Last season was a challenging one for Grealish as he made alterations to his natural game to satisfy Guardiola. Now, though, City might be changing to suit Grealish. It might only be now that the Premier League champions truly receive value for money from the £100m they invested in Grealish last summer.