Fans of Premier League teams not named Manchester City had all of one semi-competitive game’s worth of hope. The hope was that Erling Haaland, the incomprehensible physical specimen brought into this world scoring goals, would not fit within Manchester City’s dominant style of football. That hope was fueled by Haaland looking a little lost at times in last week’s Community Shield against Liverpool, a game in which he barely got the ball and, when he did, he failed some fairly simple chances in uncharacteristic fashion.
That hope lasted the entire game:
In retrospect, it should have been clear that City were always going to bend to Haaland’s irrepressible talent, and sooner rather than later. City manager Pep Guardiola is too smart to let stubborn adherence to a system get in the way of goals. And there appear to be as many goals on the horizon for City, as they went into the first game of the Premier League season on Sunday—a tough away fixture at West Ham, last year’s seventh-place finishers—and emerged with a comfortable 2-0 victory powered by the swing of the thin legs of its new Norwegian signature.
Specifically, both of City’s goals were the result of through balls behind the defensive lines, balls that required a player from Haaland’s acceleration on the other end. The first of those balls is the more impressive, or frankly the scarier. People of Haaland’s size—6-foot-4, 200 pounds—shouldn’t be able to explode from a light jog into a full sprint as quickly as he did here, forcing West Ham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola to do the only thing he could do. to stop a certain target.
Perhaps he needn’t have bothered though, as Haaland still stepped up to the penalty spot and netted his first Premier League goal, cool as you like it:
Back to the play that drew the penalty, though. This is one of the tactical touches that Guardiola has already incorporated: Rather than having Haaland drop back into an almost false 9 position to play a one-two with Ilkay Gündoğan, the Norwegian has the freedom and encouragement to break between defenders. As Gündoğan receives the ball from a very narrow João Cancelo, Haaland turns and accelerates into the open space, where the through ball finds him just before Areola can get there.
It’s a simple tweak, but for a team that hasn’t relied on a true striker since the Sergio Agüero years, it’s revelatory. It also speaks to the necessary growing pains that will occur for City as it continues to weave in Haaland. That it took about 34 minutes for the team to finally play a good through ball to their new weapon is a sign that there is still growth to be had here. Haaland made his usual runs in behind every game, but was only intermittently rewarded with passes over the top. The more City get used to throwing passes to him early and often, the more opportunities Haaland will have to do what he does best.
Haaland’s second goal on Sunday was a proof of concept. This one relies less on tactical manipulation and more on the frankly unfair combination of Haaland’s quick movement and Kevin De Bruyne’s. whole Kevin De Bruyne thing. However, it’s worth looking at how Haaland already knows that if he makes the diagonal runs past the backline, his wildly creative teammates will find him.
In this case, De Bruyne receives the ball, takes one touch, then shoots a picture perfect weighted shot to Haaland, who at the time of the pass still has three West Ham defenders to beat. Hit them he does, and then he squares his body to slot a first-time shot past Areola. It’s a simple goal just because of the perfect combination of skills on display, and perhaps more than the first goal, this second tally is the one that most showcases what Haaland can bring to a team already as good and consistent as City:
One of the side effects of City’s dominant possession style is that it drains the stamina of opponents who find themselves sprinting after the ever-moving ball for a solid two-thirds of the game. As those legs start to get heavy, City can start to break open the parked buses it often faces, which creates more room for Haaland’s unstoppable runs. These types of goals will always be there for Haaland, as long as City continue to adapt to his talents.
The one thing Haaland shouldn’t do too often is the one thing Guardiola has asked his strikers to do in the past, which is to build play and combine for nice moves. He has never really had to compete with packed defenses in his career, due to the Bundesliga’s penchant for more open play and active pressing over defensive rigidity. There will be struggles in England, but Guardiola can manage those by designing a scheme that allows his new player to use his physical talents to break open some space. Haaland is less scalpel and more chainsaw, and as long as his manager understands the difference, there will be blood and bones scattered in this team’s wake.