Often considered primarily for his unreal finishing skills, Erling Haaland will actually bring much more than that to Pep Guardiola’s team

Erling Haaland fills the one position in Manchester City’s squad where they have a shortfall. On May 10, they announced the deal: not even a week after the painful elimination in the Champions League against future champion Real Madrid. A two-leg matchup that somebody interpreted in a very simple way: Real Madrid had a great finisher (Karim Benzema), Manchester City didn’t. Maybe a bit too simplistic, but it’s also true that the Citizens created a lot of goal-scoring opportunities but lacked finalization within those 180 minutes.

For some, that is one of Pep Guardiola’s long-standing limits: managing to build teams that look like a hyper-sophisticated machine but sacrificing the more traditional number 9 in the process. The signing of Haaland was an indirect confirmation that maybe these interpretations weren’t completely wrong and that maybe Guardiola thought the team was lacking a top-notch finisher. As not many clubs can match Man City’s financial power, they were able to fill that gap with the best finisher in the world: the striker that in the last seasons had fun smashing the previsional model of Expected Goals with a superhuman regularity. From 2019 to today, Haaland scored 115 goals in 116 matches.

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But even if we’re clearly talking about the best finisher in the world, there’s somebody who thinks it’s weird that Pep Guardiola – the manager who loves to reiterate how “our striker is space” since his Barcelona days – chose to sign such a player. On the other hand, Haaland seems obsessed with the idea of scoring and improving his goal rate; apparently, he also missed some medical checks to make sure he was able to play (and score, a thing that he did regularly). This line of thought is influenced by some prejudices against Guardiola: it’s true that he often preferred fluid setups that could play without a traditional number 9, but it’s also true that during his career he coached some of the best strikers in football, such as Sergio Agüero and Robert Lewandowski, making them shine and develop even further. Today, Lewandowski still thanks Guardiola for how he helped him better understand the game during his spell at Bayern Munich.

Truth is, Haaland also plays a more complex form of football than one could tell at first sight, and he’s able to do much more things than those people acknowledge him for. Haaland was also signed by Manchester City for his ability to turn goal-scoring opportunities into actual goals, but this doesn’t mean that he can’t help the team when he’s outside the penalty box.

Haaland, the Creator

Haaland plays at his best when he’s able to confront defenses face-to-face. Even better if during an offensive transition. Even better if he has space in front of him. We know that but it doesn’t mean he’s not comfortable when playing in tighter spaces. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be considered one of the best players in the world. His ability to get away from his marker on the opposite third and assist a teammate is underrated: both in terms of ideas and execution.

For example, in this play Marco Reus attacks deep, while Haaland links up and is found by a pass from Bellingham.

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Bochum’s defender doesn’t leave the line to contrast him and this is one of Haaland’s qualities: the defenders are so afraid of his ability to manipulate them and to give him space, that they are always uncertain on how to behave. Here, Haaland is extremely quick in serving Reus’s run behind the defensive line. A pass executed with his weak foot, as a proper number 10. In the last season, he served 7 assists - his career-best – despite playing less than usual, in a not particularly brilliant season for Borussia Dortmund.

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Offensive Readings

Haaland won’t ever have Karim Benzema’s technical sensitivity or creative sophistication, and he’s technically less ‘clean’ than a striker like Robert Lewandowski. This doesn’t mean we should have the luxury to underestimate his readings. In this play against Lazio, he once again receives the ball linking up and – as a midfielder would do – he takes a look behind him to study the opposing defender’s positions and if a teammate was able to run in the space behind.

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When he can’t find any solution for the final pass, then he takes some time. He brings Lazio’s center-back Patric out of position, waiting for Raphael Guerreiro’s central run, attacking the space that Haaland left free. The striker then assists him on the run with a light touch of his right foot. A refined play, one that wouldn’t likely be associated with his brutal and hyper-vertical style of play.

Guiding Transitions

Obviously, when he’s able to run freely with space in front of him, Haaland expresses the best of his qualities: pure speed, combined with his physical prowess and technical precision that only seems to get better as speed increases. All this happened pretty frequently in the Bundesliga, where teams always try to win the ball back high, leaving a lot of space for opposing transitions. In that context, Haaland was a fish in water. Manchester City prefers to play positional attacks, but competitions such as the Premier and Champions League often offer moments of chaos that neither an obsessive manager like Guardiola can control.

In these situations, Haaland will be able to make a real difference. This transition not only highlights his athletic force but also his intelligence in managing times and spaces. He receives the ball on the right wing, where he gets to by carrying the ball with the side of the foot. Haaland doesn’t carry the ball at max speed, but he measures his run to give his teammates time to attack centrally.

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Defenders are afraid of 1v1s against him and prefer to fall back. Haaland takes advantage of this and gets to the limit of the penalty box, where he can provide a rather comfortable final pass to Alex Witsel – again, with the side of the foot, one of his favorite touches.

To sum up, Haaland was signed by City especially to improve the offensive precision of the team, and the ability to convert goal-scoring opportunities that have been Guardiola team’s Achilles heel, especially since when Agüero left the team. Even far from the goal, Haaland is one of the best players in the world for his unique combination of physical and technical skills. He’s a striker specialized in certain situations but there isn’t actually anything he can’t do.

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