Once upon a time, many years ago, there were two warriors named Alf and Roy who fought for rival clans. Alf accused Roy of feigning injury after he had collapsed with ruptured knee ligaments and for the next four years, whenever they met on the battlefield, their fighting was fierce. But then Alf joined the local rivals of Roy’s team. In the derby, Roy hit Alf on the knee, hard, and Alf conceived a terrible revenge.
Alf had a young son, less than a year old, and he raised him to be a great warrior. His son had extraordinary physical gifts. He was tall and powerful and fast. He was highly skilled. Kings and queens from all around the world wanted Alf’s son to join their army. But Alf’s son was only going to end up at one place: at the rivals to Roy’s team.
Roy’s team were already struggling after their great commander had retired. Alf’s old team, aided by the wealth of a great family from abroad, were already dominant. And now they had the mighty young warrior many believed might become the greatest in the world. It had taken 21 years, but Alf was ready for his victory.
If football these days is largely about content production, this is a great narrative strand in the Uefa Football Universe. Here is Erling Haaland, who looks like he was brought to life in a tower at midnight during a storm: could this be the dark magic that will, at last, bring Manchester City the Champions League?
Haaland is remarkable in every respect. His numbers are absurd: 78 goals in 70 league starts over the past four seasons; 23 goals in 19 appearances in the Champions League. There are times when he makes the game look stupidly easy: get ball, run with ball, kick ball, goal. He is huge, capable of battering opponents out of the way, but his game is about far more than that.
His youth coaches point out that his growth came relatively late and so, before he could use his power, he first learned to use his intelligence and movement; the players he seems most to have admired growing up were not bustling target men but Robin van Persie, Jamie Vardy and Michu. He is in the top 3% of players in Europe’s top five leagues for goals and assists – and also for clearances.
He scores relatively few headed goals for a player of his size: seven of his 86 for Dortmund in all competitions. This season, he has won 57.6% of aerial duels, a marked increase on the previous two seasons. That may not sound great but is high for a forward (most aerial duels are won by the defender). If nothing else, he will draw away a tall marker, creating space for others – and City already have a +17 goal difference from set plays this season which, if sustained until the end of the season, would be a Premier League record.
On the face of it, Haaland is just what City need to be even more devastating than they already are – even if his uncomplicated physicality seems antithetical to the precise patterns and sophisticated mechanisms of a Pep Guardiola side. But that may be his strength, that he offers the sort of unpredictability, the sort of capacity to break a game that, in a very different way, Lionel Messi did for Barcelona.
City, weird as it may sound for a club who have scored more goals than anybody else in the Premier League this season, are not particularly efficient in front of goal. They have had the better xG in every league game this season but have lost three times and dropped 19 points. More significantly, having hammered Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League but won only 4-3, they converted one of the nine shots they had on target before Real scored with their first two at the Bernabéu.
This is where we run into the real intrigue of the Haaland signing. He is a disruptor. He is not one of the “obedient little schoolboys” Zlatan Ibrahimovic mocked Guardiola’s Barcelona squad for being; indeed, he has cited Ibrahimovic as an inspiration and signed to the same agent.
Barcelona bought Ibrahimovic in 2009 to offer a more physical attacking option, to ensure they were not reliant on the rhythms of La Masia. As it turned out, he was too different, refused to sacrifice himself sufficiently to the system and fell out with everybody.
Haaland, too, is a different option. Guardiola has worked successfully with strikers – David Villa, Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Agüero – but they were comfortable pulling wide and dropping deep. Haaland is different; a more direct, more orthodox striker.
Although he does score regularly from low cutbacks, the classic City goal, opportunities for his trademark surge from deep may be scarce given City play habitually so high. But perhaps that doesn’t matter: Haaland will enhance City’s threat on the break in games against better opposition, against teams who do push up against them.
But Haaland’s pass completion rate this season is 71.3%; none of City’s present options at centre-forward – Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish or Bernardo Silva – average under 85%. Even if that is largely to do with Borussia Dortmund’s approach, an adjustment will be required.
Haaland is six years younger than Ibrahimovic was when he was signed for Barça, less fully formed, less of an outsider. He is also far more reserved and being the rebel is not part of his make-up. The sort of blow-up that happened with Ibrahimovic is unlikely. But that doesn’t mean signing him is not a risk.
City need to be more clinical but, by bringing in somebody who can be more ruthless in taking chances, there is a good chance they don’t create so many – but then they may not need to. Striking the right balance is critical, particularly for a team whose method is so rooted in control. Alf’s Revenge adds an extra note of intrigue, but there is far more in the Haaland signing than that.