Pep Guardiola said: “I’ve played all my career with number 9.” Sky BEIN This summer before moving on to the list of some of the most famous strikers in football. But the head coach of Manchester City has never had a player like Erling Braut Haaland before.
With six goals in his first four Premier League games, Haaland settled in faster than Guardiola had hoped for, and it looked very easy. It looks like goals have found the Norwegian and any concerns about him having to adapt to City’s style have faded.
Manchester City has not changed its style. The builder’s play is still patient – and so is Haaland. He waited for opportunities knowing they were coming, and kept his position in the penalty area because his presence creates opportunities elsewhere.
“He can’t touch the ball, but he’s always involved,” Guardiola says.
When Haaland scored just eight touches against Bournemouth on his first home appearance in the Premier League, those stats made headlines. It was nothing more than a masterpiece considering City won the match by four goals but it highlighted the challenge, as Guardiola explained.
“The hardest job in the world is when you are a striker and defenders are defending in areas like Bournemouth. They have three central defenders, two players up front and everyone in the middle. How do you survive like this? It is very difficult.”
It is a difficulty that City faces the most. “Against this kind of team, we’re fighting because they defend deep.” And Halland’s arrival to receive the ball is not the solution. “When a midfielder stays there he doesn’t have to fall.”
The striker’s only option is to accept that his role in this Manchester City side when they dominate possession is to play a game of waiting and trust that the ball will find it where it matters in the end. “He’s a guy who lives in the box,” Guardiola says.
Nobody has played this way for City before.
Since Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City in 2016, no player has scored as few touches every 90 minutes as Haaland. In fact, no one comes close. The next three City players who have seen little to no ball are Ederson, Willy Caballero and Claudio Bravo – all of whom are goalkeepers.
Haaland averages 24.6 touches per 90 minutes. That’s about half of what Sergio Aguero was, a player who sometimes gets frustrated at not being involved. It is very rare for an elite striker to have so few touches on the ball.
Check out the list of Premier League Golden Boot winners over the past decade and the average number of touches per 90 minutes is 48.3 – almost double Haaland’s rate. Leicester’s Jamie Vardy has rarely been involved in the 2019/20 season directly.
Vardy is one of only two players in the Premier League this season – the other being Newcastle’s Callum Wilson – to have touched the ball less often than Haaland. It’s an extraordinary feeling for Haaland to do that in a team that has more touches than any other team.
But all the evidence suggests that it doesn’t matter. Haaland may not touch the ball much overall, but when he does touch it, that touch tends to be significant. No one in the Premier League has scored more shots from inside the penalty area this season.
In fact, a total of six goals from 89 touches means he averages a goal every 14.8 touches to the ball. For comparison, there are only five other players in the Premier League since 2010 with a goal average each sixty ball touches. This is an amazing efficiency.
The sample size is small, so expect the number of touches per target to go up, but it wouldn’t be a shock if it stays lower than everyone else. This is a world-class player in the penalty area in a team that creates chances of a higher quality than the rest. Haaland is ruthless.
Consider those goals against Crystal Palace, each revealing in their own way. The first was an attractive cross from Phil Foden but Haaland’s strength made it inevitable. The second is an example of what Guardiola called his “amazing sense of purpose”.
The third showed what would happen when opponents made the mistake of letting him run after him. It was too easy for him after that. “He doesn’t shoot the ball, he puts it in the net. The number of goals he’s scored is amazing.”
He has the highest number of predicted goals of any player in the Premier League, yet he vastly outperforms this predicted goal number as well. Again, although the sample size is small, it is a trait that perfectly aligns with his career thus far.
In the German league, he consistently outperformed his expected goals. In the Champions League, he outperformed his expected total goals by 37 per cent – indicating that he is the world’s top scorer over the past decade.
The danger when a team has such a strong scorer is that they look for it too often and too quickly. A frequent criticism of Cristiano Ronaldo in his later years was that while he continued to score, the teams in which he was playing saw their aggregates decline.
Although Haaland was not involved in play, he was at the high end of their chances. Only Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic – only – has had a greater share of his team’s expected goals without penalty kicks so far this season.
The number could be higher. Foden cost his team a certain goal when he chose not to make the ball square for him in the first half against Bournemouth. Speaking to Joao Cancelo recently, it’s clear that developing an understanding with Haaland is a priority.
When his new colleagues understand him better, there will be a temptation to look for him more and more. It will be interesting to see if that changes the approach. For now, the signs are that Guardiola wants them to be patient – just like their striker.
Guardiola says: “We will find many of these situations, but it is a matter of time – the right moment, the right rhythm, the right movement. But the quality of the players behind him, to help him, we will find him, I have no doubts about that.”
Premier League defences, beware.