Erling Haaland: Manchester City’s Norwegian Phenom in Attack

In a philharmonic orchestra, there tends to be a lot of emphasis placed on the importance of the conductor. And whilst this is a well-placed assumption, each great orchestra tends to have an established chain of command that makes it run smoothly. 


In addition to being a great conductor, the role of the principal is arguably just as important. A section principal tends to be the highest skilled member of the players, demonstrating leadership through their superior capabilities and other members of a section look to their principal for cues mid-performance. 


An explanation in football terms can be very easy to find once you know what to look for. Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Manchester City have been one of European football’s most skilled performers for years now.


Exquisite in the timing and dynamics of top-level football, their patterns of play are so well rehearsed that they are akin to a machine-like operation. It can be declared, however, that there had been an insistence from City supporters and board members that replacing Sergio Aguero and buying a more ‘traditional’ striker to complete Guardiola’s repertoire. 


This had been, in large part, down to the historical significance that strikers have in a Guardiola system. His strikers tend to be a vital part of engaging the press and occupying defenders when in possession to free up space for wide players. In addition to this, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, City’s Chief Executive, had talked of the importance of replacing Aguero before his departure from the club had even been finalized. 


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Haaland plays football as if he was created in a laboratory. He had previously been featured on the cover of a Spanish magazine as “a half-human, half-robot soccer machine.” He has the strength you’d expect from his massive skeleton at 191 cm tall and 87 kg, but he also has an athletic quality that could make him a track runner. 


Interestingly, he is said to have set a world record in the long jump for 5-year-olds on January 22, 2006, jumping 1.63 m, and his parents experimented with him in various sports to find his qualities and test his abilities. These skills carried over to the handball court. The Norwegian national handball team had invited him to join them. So it is no surprise that now, as an adult, Haaland represents a force of nature.


As if powered by a sensor, he seems to know exactly what to do off the ball to exploit defenders positioning and win it back. It makes getting the ball into the back of the net appear simple, as if it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of ingenuity and skill. Whether he is unprepared to receive the ball or stands with his back to the opponent’s goal, he always manages to direct the ball towards the goal, much like a homing missile always knows which way to go to find its target. 


Further evidence of his importance is how he is occupying defenders with his movement and freeing up space for Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez etc. Just as a section principal is the leading force that other players pivot around, look to for cues and align their playing to their principal, Haaland is doing a very similar job for City. 


Not only is his clear abilities a boost for the whole team but he is also providing a template for others to follow. If every City attacker follows Haaland’s intensity, then this would make Guardiola’s job easier and easier. The Norwegian has taken the English top-flight by storm with 14 goals and 3 assists as well as 3 goals in his first 2 Champions League matches.


Despite having scored 14 goals this season in just 10 games, Haaland doesn’t seem to know how to react to what his teammates are doing; and the majority of his teammates don’t know how to play to the Norwegian’s skills when they are up against it. That is evident by how infrequently Haaland contributes directly to the game. So far, he has averaged just over 21 touches per 90 minutes, down from 31 at Borussia Dortmund, for Man City, which has 10% more possession than Dortmund. 


Haaland’s style was never about his ability on the ball; even 21 touches is a low number for one of the world’s best strikers. However, the decline in his contributions, as well as how rarely a player exploits his greatest advantage by sending balls into space behind the defense, show that City have yet to figure out how to maximize his abilities. 


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In the Crystal Palace game, for example, Palace took the lead with two goals after only 21 minutes, and Haaland spent the majority of the game time in the event vicinity, touching the ball only 18 times, less than all players on the field except Tyrick Mitchell (Palace’s full-back), who had to come out injured after 57 minutes. However, seven of Haaland’s 18 touches resulted in shots, three of which were goals. 


Haaland has only had 153 touches this season, but he leads the league in goals (11) and ranks second in shots (27) behind Aleksandar Mitrović (29). And, while he doesn’t drop off to take the ball or shoot it as we’d expect from Pep Guardiola’s strikers, he contributes to the team’s play without interfering with himself. 


Potentially another blessing in this partnership is that Pep Guardiola has proven himself a skilled conductor at managing virtuosic talents, and getting the best out of them both technically and tactically.  Because of his scoring reputation, panicked defensive lines devote the majority of their attention to containing him, leaving fewer eyes and legs to track other players’ movements. 


Similarly, the mere threat of Haaland’s speed means that when he turns his head towards goal, defenses will retreat deeper out of fear, creating gaps for his teammates to exploit. Furthermore, knowing that no matter what time, position, or pattern, City will be close to scoring a goal or three as long as Haaland stays and does not leave; instills a great deal of confidence. 


Not only have Manchester City never seen anything like Erling Haaland, but the Premier League also may have never seen anything like Haaland in the 30 years since its inception.  He’s the chaos maker, the one who can catch opponents off guard before they can organize their defenses, the protagonist who first shoots the ball into the top corner of the net and then starts asking questions, and the reference point that his teammates can look to for guidance, cues and a framework for attacking mercilessness, and he may just be what Manchester City needed to win their first Champions League trophy in club history.


By: Omar Mokhtar / @OmarMokhtar6643

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sebastian Frej / MB Media / Getty Images