Is Erling Haaland doing as much for Man City as we all think?Image: Getty Images
It’s admittedly a good time to ask whether or not Erling Haaland made Manchester City a better football team, especially if you’re not of the Citizens’ Conviction. Given my incredible motherfucking powers, this might be the worst time to ask.
The reigning two-time champions have worked their way out of the World Cup hiatus, with one draw and one defeat in their four league games since the Premier League restarted. And for Haaland, failing to score in back-to-back games represents something of a crisis given Arche’s need for the scoring, which he usually delivers. It’s particularly poignant after City were overturned 2-1 by United in Saturday’s Manchester derby, a defeat that leaves them up to eight points behind leaders Arsenal and the Reds half of Manchester by just one after the weekend’s games Lead could hold point for second.
But with City’s normally purring death machine spinning a little in the mud at the moment, we’re using the opening to ask: are City better off with Haaland?
What’s the problem with Man City?
By most surface numbers, no. After 18 games last season, City had 44 points and 44 goals with a +35 goal difference. This season, after 18 games, they have 39 points and scored 46 goals with a goal difference of +28. So a little more goals, but not the same number of wins or points or dominance.
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After 18 games last season, City had scored those 44 goals on 45.4 goals expected. So they scored exactly the number of goals their chance creation suggested. This campaign, Haaland is the main reason City have surpassed his xG – 46 goals from 36.3 goals expected – which is the benefit of having the world’s best finisher on your team, the margin of error he offers because he always surpasses will what the metrics say he should. But still, this is City, and it’s a bit odd to see their random creation dwindle. The city usually bets on team-wide brilliance, not individual brilliance (odd as that may sound given the amount of individual brilliance).
Especially when you can easily focus on a game like yesterday, undoubtedly a big one for City. Because when Haaland didn’t score, he didn’t do much else either. No shots on goal, two shots, only 20 touches. It was pretty much the same story in City’s Ho Hum win over Chelsea, where he had just three shots and none on target. Just before the World Cup break he had a similar performance against Brentford in yet another loss for City. Compare that to his performance of eight shots, five shots on target and two goals against the Leeds United mayhem. He occasionally had a tendency to be something of an obelisk when City failed to finish games.
Before you blame Erling…
However, where Haaland’s influence on City’s biggest problems comes from is more difficult to assess. City have had a nasty habit this season of shutting down as soon as they score a goal. They weren’t great against United yesterday, especially in the first half, but controlled the game early in the second half and then deservedly scored. And then they were just kind of there.
It was the same story when they managed to draw against Everton on New Year’s Eve. Haaland scored in the 24th minute and then City managed just two blocked shots in the 40 minutes between that and the equaliser. Their draw at Villa was the same story, Haaland scored and then City pawed at the opponent with the ball, clocked out and caught. There aren’t many of those games, but thanks to the ridiculous standard City have set over the past six seasons or so, and the one Arsenal are holding this season, there don’t need to be many games where you switch off to yourself find yourself off the pace.
However big and whatever the problems at City (everything is relative says this Liverpool supporter), Haaland is not to blame for Kevin De Bruyne still playing with the same facial expression he had at the World Cup, which is akin was just stepping in dog shit. It might not have much to do with Haaland that Joao Cancelo isn’t quite the force he was last season. Bernardo Silva’s goal threat has dried up, but that could be because he’s been playing from the front line, as he has at least occasionally done in the past. Ilkay Gündogan really can’t help being 32 now.
But sure, it was an adjustment for City to have a center forward who doesn’t really add to the build (although he’s better at it than he’s given credit for). City’s strikerless formations over the past two or three seasons have seen a range of moves and passes from their attacking five that neither team has been able to keep track of. The teams kind of know where Haaland will be most of the time, whether there’s much they can do about it or not. But his positioning keeps the wide forwards in their spots instead of ducking in and out and all around. Maybe that’s one reason why they get a little stale when trying to finish a game?
City also had a habit of falling apart when things didn’t go to plan. They were almost certainly screwed at Old Trafford on Saturday when Marcus Rashford disrupted play from an offside position, even though he did not touch the ball. But that didn’t mean they had to give up a winner in their daze. They scored against Liverpool and promptly gave up a rather funny winner on an easy long ball. We know from City’s previous dick-in-the-dirt experiments in the Champions League that they can lose everything if things go wrong. But this is no team without a bottle, as evidenced by their ability to hold Liverpool down to the final day in two of the last three seasons. They’re just… weird sometimes.
It should be said that if Haaland scores that one goal in the knockout stages of the Champions League (which City could never find when they need it) and their tedious pursuit of that trophy, City and their fans won’t care about a thing bring to an end. One or two additional slips in the league and the Champions League will keep City busy anyway. It should also be pointed out that despite the flood of goals he scored with Dortmund, Haaland has only clinched one DFB-Pokal win so far, although obviously other circumstances are at hand.
City are still no worse than the second or third best team in Europe. It is their own greatness that makes their margin of error so small. But it’s worth asking which side her slot machine striker landed her on?