OOnce upon a time, many years ago, there were two warriors named Alf and Roy who fought for rival clans. Alf accused Roy of faking injury after collapsing with a ruptured knee ligament and for the next four years whenever they met on the battlefield their fights were fierce. But then Alf joined the local rivals of Roy’s team. In the derby, Roy hit Alf in the knee, hard, and Alf engineered a terrible revenge.
Alf had a young son, less than a year old, and he raised him to be a great warrior. Her son had extraordinary physical gifts. He was big, powerful and fast. He was highly qualified. Kings and queens around the world wanted Alf’s son to join their army. But Alf’s son was only going to end up in one place: with the rivals of Roy’s team.
Roy’s team was already struggling after the retirement of its great commander. Alf’s old team, aided by the wealth of a large foreign family, was already dominating. And now they had the mighty young warrior that many thought could become the greatest in the world. It had taken 21 years, but Alf was ready for his victory.
While football these days is largely about content production, it is a big narrative thread in the world of UEFA football. Here is Erling Haaland, who seems to have come to life in a tower at midnight during a storm: could it be black magic that will finally bring Manchester City the Champions League?
Haaland is remarkable in every way. His numbers are absurd: 78 goals in 70 league starts over the last four seasons; 23 goals in 19 Champions League appearances. There are times when he makes the game look stupidly easy: take the ball, run with the ball, kick the ball, score. He’s huge, capable of beating opponents from the sidelines, but his game goes way beyond that.
His youth trainers point out that his growth came relatively late and so, before he could use his power, he first learned how to use his intelligence and movement; the players he seems to have admired the most growing up weren’t animated targets, but Robin van Persie, Jamie Vardy and Michu. He is in the top 3% of players in Europe’s top five leagues for goals and assists – as well as clearances.
He scores relatively few headed goals for a player of his size: seven of his 86 for Dortmund in all competitions. This season, he has won 57.6% of aerial duels, a marked increase from the previous two seasons. That might not sound great, but it’s high for an attacker (most aerial duels are won by the defender). At least he’ll attract a big scorer, creating space for others – and City already have a +17 goal difference from set pieces this season which, if sustained until the end of the season, would be a Premier League record.
On the face of it, Haaland is exactly what City need to be even more devastating than they already are – even if his simple physique seems antithetical to the precise schemes and sophisticated mechanics of a Pep Guardiola side. But perhaps that’s his strength, that he offers the kind of unpredictability, the kind of game-breaking ability that, in a very different way, Lionel Messi did for Barcelona.
City, strange as it may seem for a club that have scored more goals than anyone else in the Premier League this season, are not particularly effective in front of goal. They’ve had the best xG in every league game this season, but have lost three times and dropped 19 points. More importantly, after hammering Real Madrid in their Champions League first leg but winning just 4-3, they converted one of nine shots on target before Real scored with their first two at the Bernabéu.
This is where we encounter the real plot of Haaland’s signing. He’s a disruptor. He’s not one of the ‘obedient little schoolboys’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic mocked at Guardiola’s Barcelona side; indeed, he cited Ibrahimovic as an inspiration and signed with the same agent.
Barcelona bought Ibrahimovic in 2009 to provide a more physical attacking option, to ensure they weren’t dependent on La Masia rhythms. He turned out to be too different, refused to sacrifice himself enough to the system, and fell out with everyone.
Haaland, too, is a different option. Guardiola worked successfully with forwards – David Villa, Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Aguero – but they were comfortable shooting wide and going deep. Haaland is different; a more direct, more orthodox attacker.
Although he regularly scores from low cuts, City’s classic goal, opportunities for his trademark can be rare given City usually play so high. But maybe that doesn’t matter: Haaland will add to City’s threat at the break in games against better opposition, against teams that face them.
But Haaland’s success rate this season is 71.3%; none of City’s current options at centre-forward – Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish or Bernardo Silva – average below 85%. Even though this is largely linked to Borussia Dortmund’s approach, an adjustment will be necessary.
Haaland is six years younger than Ibrahimovic when he signed for Barca, less trained, less outsider. He is also much more reserved and being the rebel is not part of his makeup. The kind of explosion that happened with Ibrahimovic is unlikely. But that doesn’t mean signing him isn’t a risk.
The city needs to be more clinical but, by bringing in someone who can be more ruthless in taking risks, chances are they won’t create as many – but they might not. need. Finding the right balance is key, especially for a team whose method is so rooted in control. Alf’s Revenge adds an extra note of intrigue, but there is much more to Haaland’s signature than that.