As far as introductions go, Erling Haaland gave us a pretty good preview of what’s in store over the next few months.
The two goals, sure. Truly explosive pace, smart movement, the uncanny knack — which he highlights himself — of never being offside, and the ice-in-the-veins finishing.
We all knew he had it in him, it was just a case of how long it would take him to demonstrate it in a Manchester City shirt.
Would his players find him, would his direct style gel with his more patient colleagues? It’s impossible to say now whether it will be like this more often than not, but it was a pretty ominous start for the rest of the league, and Europe’s finest.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is not whether he could do the things everybody knows he can do, but how would he adjust the little things he’s not quite so good at?
“One week ago he couldn’t adapt in the Premier League and now he’s alongside Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo,” Pep Guardiola dryly reflected afterwards, before making a better point.
“He came for five years, hopefully he can stay more and what we want is for him to be happy. He’s a guy with incredible talent to score goals, but we would like to add something more to his game, to be a better player. Not just a guy who scores goals, which is incredibly important, but that’s why we want to try to give everything to him to be a better player.”
One example is his link-up play. Sources around City stressed Guardiola would not change his plans dele too much to fit in Haaland, and that the Norwegian would simply have to adjust, dropping deep to link up the play like a string of false nines have done over the past 18 months.
And basically, every one of his touches apart from his two goals came when deep off the West Ham defenders and finding a team-mate.
The Athletic‘s Ahmed Walid will pick up the baton on City’s use of Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo inside the central midfielders, explaining how the ploy led to both City goals, so let’s focus on the big Norwegian battering ram who will hog the Monday morning headlines.
And that link-up play, which is often considered the weakest element of his impressive game, was… brilliant, actually.
As was his attacking of the spaces behind the West Ham defence. A perfect example came just after the hour-mark.
Initially, he dropped deep to receive a pass from Rodri, popped it off to Walker and then set off on his run as City put together arguably their slickest move of the afternoon.
They had been looking for switches of play to a winger (Jack Grealish on the left, Phil Foden on the right) all afternoon, and on this occasion, as Foden received the ball, he had Kevin De Bruyne steaming into the right half-space .
Foden found him and De Bruyne produced one of those low crosses to the back post of his, but it just evaded Haaland. Ilkay Gundogan nearly profited, but his shot was shy.
What it did show was that perfect blend of what Haaland is going to have to do: drop to link up the play in the center circle, but be alert, mobile and quick enough to go and finish the move off as well.
It may not have brought a goal, but it sends out a warning to other teams that Haaland is grasping what is being asked of him.
Soon after, he did it again, dropping to take a pass from Nathan Ake, relieving the pressure on his team, and finding Rodri, before turning and bursting forward.
This time it didn’t lead to a chance, but it showed what he has to do.
And there were plenty of other passes that were nothing more than routine but serve as evidence that Haaland is hardly some lummox who can barely control the ball.
He did make only 23 passes (see below), the fewest of any City starter, but almost every one was a test of how quickly he can slot into this dizzying passing machine. So the passing accuracy of 91 percent is pretty promising.
It is, of course, not the part of his game that will justify the deserved hype around his arrival. Had he not scored on Sunday, praise of his five-yard passes with a defender on his back he might have rung a little hollow, but given it is one of the things he was expected to have to improve, it was a good sign. On one occasion, the fans were praising his father dele with a rendition of, “There’s only one Alfie Haaland” as he did so.
And of course, there were examples when he was downright dangerous with his interplay. In the first half, De Bruyne had a strike ruled out for offside after Gundogan had strayed beyond the last defender, but it was Haaland’s turn and pass in behind that got him there.
Gundogan soon repaid the favor — perhaps highlighting why he got the nod over Bernardo Silva — by picking the ball up in his favored left half-space, turning and playing the Norway striker through. Haaland darted in behind and took the ball around goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, who brought him down. Haaland immediately grabbed the ball and his composed finish by him grazed the inside of the post.
If some elements of his Premier League debut were pleasantly surprising, one was almost entirely predictable.
De Bruyne was a little rusty, his radar a little off, but when the opportunity arose to play a ball into space for Haaland, he did exactly what he needed to do. And so did Haaland, who seized upon his chance and finished with certainty.
VAR has ruined several moments like this over the years, but not this time.
“I’ve been thinking of this my whole life, running behind to time it perfectly,” Haaland said during pre-season. “Me and my father have been discussing this a lot, and when VAR came, it was just good for me, because then the truth is actually there that I’m almost never offside.”
So it proved this time, as there was never a question that the goal might be ruled out.
And so he was left to reflect on his debut. “I could have (had a hat-trick) with the one from Ilkay just before I went off, so it was a bit shit,” he said on Sky Sports.
Indeed, he was livid with himself when Gundogan produced a low ball across the box from the left.
When Guardiola was pressed on how he wants his new striker to improve, he referred back to Haaland’s own comments: “What he said already. Finishing left and right, with his head, the movements.”
The City boss also highlighted how the team will still have to be patient, to still work the ball left and right, but that they have “a new weapon”, as he termed it, when it comes to opening teams up. “We had the feeling that we could find him more… now we have him and when the defense is high with open space, these guys have to find him. When you have this open space and Kevin, it’s difficult to stop him.”
Clearly, there is more to come.
(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)
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