On the face of it this looks like the most basic piece of maths. Here is a move that can never be the wrong move. When life gives you lemons, sign Erling Haaland. When your squad doesn’t have a first-team player whose chief skill is scoring goals, sign Erling Haaland. When six years of careful team-building brings you a Champions League semi-final exit with 31 shots at goal: sign Erling Haaland.
To date Haaland’s career has been a kind of extended marketing program, a showcase for his preternatural ability to do exactly this. Here we have the cheat code player, a bolt-on goal-guarantee, the footballer as one-punch knockout artist. Manchester City want a goalscorer. Haaland is goals, a footballer who has pared back his role to the pursuit of football’s most basic unit. What could possibly go wrong? Except, of course, this is still a dazzlingly complex sport, an interlocking of endless additions and subtractions. Teams can be brittle, high-spec things. Dig a little and the signing of Haaland is something of a departure for Pep Guardiola, even quite a reckless tactical move. Or at least one that will require a degree of applied intelligence on both sides.
Haaland has become a far more complete player in the past two seasons. But the fact remains, a player who could have gone anywhere has signed for a coach who will instantly set about trying to change him. City have signed the one A-list goalscorer who looks an undeniably awkward fit.
This is not to suggest the move will be a failure. That would be nuts. This is a mouthwatering prospect. Guardiola is a great coach who will work like a maniac to make this fit. Haaland is a great, generational talent but also a modern, fully briefed, academy-reared footballer. Talent plus talent solves most problems.
But it is also a first on various levels: the first time City have simply gone out and bought a fantasy player, the next-best in the world, their Neymar. As ever with City it has still been smart business. The release clause transfer fee makes that part of the deal a bargain. Factor in the full range of slices, fees, top-ups, and upfront lump sums, and it’s pretty clear this is what you might call an Uncle Monty deal: very expensive to those who can’t afford it; good business for those who can.
The finances will look after themselves. The real gamble here, the real point of interest, is tactical. You have to hand it to Pep. He has gone all in. This is not a hedge or a fudge. Rather than shivering awkwardly on the edge of the swimming pool, he has instead jumped right into fully clothed and bombed the shallow end, signing not just a goalscorer, but a 100% pure uncut goalscorer.
“A crazy market for scorers, ”Was Le Parisien’s take on a market going crazy for goalscorers, with moves lined up for Haaland, Kylian Mbappé and Robert Lewandowski. But of these only Mbappé is in the clearest sense an out-and-out scorera striker whose skills are honed to a fine point.
At the end of which the team that obsesses most over possession have signed a star player whose one weakness is his ability to keep possession. The manager who gave us the modern passing game has signed a striker whose passing is the least developed part of his game. Guardiola is often accused of being overly fixated on his own methods. To his credit, he is well out of his comfort zone here.
This is not to suggest Haaland is an obsessive monomaniac goal. On Whoscored.com’s list of Europe’s current top 10 goalscorers he’s fifth on assists. He loses the ball less than Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah and Mbappé.
Most of his goals (15 of 21 in the league) have been scored with his left foot, but that showreel of one-touch finishes and neat little runs suggests his movement fits with the way City like to attack.
Then, there’s the other stuff, the data flags. Haaland doesn’t just make fewer passes than any other leading goalscorer in Europe. He’s miles back.
Karim Benzema makes 41 passes for 90 minutes, Mbappé 38.9, Salah 35, Cristiano Ronaldo 32.4.
Haaland is right down there on 22, ranked 129th out of 193 attacking players in the top five leagues to have played more than 18 games. Among players who have filled that slot for City this season, Phil Foden completed 40.5 passes per 90 minutes, Gabriel Jesus 36, Raheem Sterling 35, Jack Grealish 41.6. Haaland has one (yes: one) accurate long pass in the Bundesliga this season. Foden has attempted 26 of these, Jesus 22. Haaland hasn’t made a single accurate cross. Mbappé has 19 of them. Haaland will improve, and play differently in a different team. But this is still a massive disparity with other top players.
The point here is simply that one side of this equation will have to change. Either Haaland adapts to fit the style, and there is no reason to assume he can’t (or indeed, as yet, no reason to suggest he can either). Or City successfully adapted a system that, while it lacks a pure finisher, is based almost entirely on working that overload of passing players in midfield and attack.
It is certainly a select club that Haaland is joining. Guardiola hasn’t signed a specialist goalscorer since Jesus in 2016. Before that complete list in 16 years as a head coach reads: Lewandowski, David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But his record of working with goalscorers is also phenomenal.
Lionel Messi scored 30 league goals in two and a half seasons pre-Pep, and 88 in his next three under Pep, glossed and tweaked into the prefect modern day false 9. Sergio Agüero scored more goals under Pep than before Pep. A poacher who looked a poor fit at first enjoyed the best years of his career under the great obsessive midfield.
This seems to be about will and character as much as anything else. Thierry Henry has talked about the way everything in this system is based on subjugating the ego, keeping to your position, allowing the rest of the team to set patterns, to accept the game will be won this way, not your way. The early fallings out with Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o were mired in talk of disrespect and the like, Guardiola refusing to bend to the needs of big-ego players, seeing only his own team-building zeal.
Haaland will know all this of course. City and Pep will have done their own thorough due diligence. Plus Guardiola knows better than anyone that teams evolve, that Haaland brings his own edge and energy, that this can be a moment of addition not dilution. Both parties have a rare free summer to work at it, to find those new shapes and patterns. A simple sum in so many ways; but also endlessly complex.