The Importance of Getting Erling: A Player and a Coach’s Earnest Search for Perfection

Erling Haaland is now a Manchester City boy. After years of “nearly-theres” on the European stage, the club needed a decisive force, and they seem to have found it in a 21-year-old Norwegian forward with golden hair and brutish strength.

Erling Haaland, Pep Guardiola, and the search for uber football
Art by Tushar Dey

Life is a series of decisions, and more often than not, these choices are very hard to make. Which college do I apply to for a master’s degree, which country is the best for my future, and what job prospects do I have in one company as compared to another? Even something as simple as deciding between pizza and pasta for dinner could take a lot of time! 

There are some decisions, however, that just feel right. We might yet take our time to decide on these calls, but there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with it—for example, finally mustering up the courage to ask someone out or deciding to go with the same brand of earphones you have been using for years. These calls are motivated by strong emotions or they just make too much sense on paper for us to overthink them.

Manchester City deciding to sign Erling Haaland falls into the latter category. 

A team constantly on the rise over the past decade, led by arguably the best coach of the 21st century who crashed out of yet another Champions League season despite having 31 shots at goal across two legs of the semi-final. They just pipped one of the best Liverpool sides of all time at the post to another Premier League title and have been wanting to go all the way in Europe for quite some time. A team that hasn’t signed a proper ‘go-get-me-a-goal’ player since Gabriel Jesus in January 2017. A team that is looking to replace the void left by Sergio Aguero, arguably their greatest ever player. A team that is complete in almost every way imaginable has now just added the most talented No. 9 of our generation. 

Haaland to City, on the surface, makes as much sense as any football transfer ever will.

Unfortunately for Man City, football isn’t so black and white. 

“Being Manchester City’s centre-forward should be the easiest role in football. This is the Premier League team with the most possession, the most touches inside the box and the most goals this season. Just stand up front and put the ball in the net. And yet, it is not that simple.” 

Adam Bate, Sky Sports

Haaland is such a big name that City’s Champions League disappointment is no longer a topic for banter as rivals are more interested now in trying to find flaws in their latest signing, trying to downplay its importance. Let me assure you—this transfer is definitely a big deal. 

The Impact on Dortmund

If you’re a young player hoping to get regular game time in a top club at one of the best leagues where your development is guaranteed, Borussia Dortmund is the place to be.

Mario Götze, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Robert Lewandowski, Jadon Sancho, Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic—the list of top talents that have  come through Dortmund over the years is exhaustive. There’s another important thing to note here: as long as you’re talented and another club is willing to pay a lot for your services, Dortmund will not stand in your way of leaving.

Dortmund’s scouting and transfer strategy seem to be clear since they last won the league title (2012): scout the best talents in the world, sign them for a small fee, develop them into players that catch the eye of the big clubs, and then sell them for a premium price a few years later. To be viewed as a ‘selling club’ is annoying for any top organisation, but the former Bundesliga champions seemingly have no issue with that tag. 

Then again, if you asked me how exactly I’d tackle the mammoth that is Bayern Munich without their resources, I could fill as many pages as George RR Martin’s A Dream of Spring.

How does Haaland’s departure affect Dortmund? Well, his goals will no doubt be hard to replace. He scored 85 in 88 appearances, including 15 in the Champions League in 13 games, which is an absurd number. His departure will be tough on the team but maybe not as much as you would think.

For all of Haaland’s goals for Dortmund, the bigger issue during his stay has been their comically weak defence. This season in the Bundesliga, Dortmund have conceded 52 goals in 34 games; that’s more than anyone in the top seven! Haaland scored 22 of their 85 goals in the competition, but if you remove that, they will still have scored more goals (63) than any team outside the top four.

I’m not suggesting that his absence won’t be an issue for Dortmund. To lose a player of his calibre will certainly affect any team as Haaland’s presence alone elevates Dortmund’s attack. But for a club known for its ‘Moneyball’ strategy, it’s a problem they can theoretically overcome.

Go back to all the ex-Dortmund names mentioned above and you can see that while the club sells world-class players, its scouting of the next great talent is also probably the best in the world. To quote the Marvel supervillain Thanos: Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

Dortmund announced the signing of Karim Adeyemi just sixty-two minutes after they announced Haaland’s departure. The 20-year-old striker had a breakout season with RB Salzburg (Haaland’s former club). Adeyemi had 23 goals and eight assists in 42 appearances across all competitions this season. His performances helped Salzburg win the Austrian Bundesliga and reach the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

It would be unwise to suggest that Adeyemi is the next Haaland, of course. But what Dortmund have done is sign another potential world-class forward, and no doubt they will use more of the Haaland money to improve their defence.

Dortmund fan John Zuidema explains in his article detailing the transfer’s impact:

This sale gives us money and the ability to improve the team overall through further transfers, helping to close a gap that was already quite narrow at points throughout this season.” 

The task facing Edin Terzić, the club’s new manager after Marco Rose was sacked, is simple (on paper)—Haaland will have to be replaced in aggregate, to make the team better overall as opposed to relying on a generational player to score important goals. Terzić has been with Dortmund since 2018 and will have a better idea of how to manage his new signings.

Dortmund received around €60m for Haaland, and half of that has been spent on Adeyemi—personally, I do have trust in their scouting team to get some competent players to make them more (or at least as) competitive. 

The Greatness of Man City

Admittedly, I did not follow José Mourinho’s resilient Chelsea team which won two Premier League titles and set a defensive record for the ages, or Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning Manchester United. I have, however, been following the Premier League since 2009, and I don’t think there is any team that can match the almost-perfect beast that Pep Guardiola has created. 

City have just won their fourth league title in five seasons. Three of these wins have come with 100, 98, and 93 points—the Premier League points record up until the Centurions season was 95! If not for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool fighting City within an inch of their life, they would have won five titles in a row and without any close competition.

As much as Premier League fans love to call the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 ‘farmers’ leagues’, there’s a real danger of the English top division becoming a two-team show, with Liverpool falling short of their rivals (not in Europe though).

The only thing lacking from City’s world-class arsenal of offensive players is a world-class striker. Sergio Agüero was still elite when Pep Guardiola arrived, but he saw his time in the team and his goals tally worsen during his last two seasons with the club. 

Forgetting the money that went into establishing this brilliant, close to £1 billion team (that would require another article), what City have done so far is commendable. Their starting eleven, their depth, their playing style, their scouting and coaching system are the definition of top-level football. Now, this almost-perfect side adds the second-best striker from the Bundesliga, who has an insane record of 134 goals in 182 senior appearances. Mind-blowing, right? 

On paper, yes. In reality, will the transition be so smooth? Time will give us that answer, but we can attempt to find out ourselves through the experience of former Bundesliga players in England and with the help of some statistics.

Haaland Is a Different Beast, but So Is the Premier League

Let’s make a few things clear—Haaland is an extraordinary footballer, not just a talent because he’s not merely a Golden Boy winner who is yet to blossom. While he can improve on certain aspects of his game, what you have right now is a physical beast with a great eye for goal and no taste for losing. He can beat you with his pace, push you off with his strength, leave most defenders dead in the air with his leaps, and finish from almost anywhere inside the box.

Any doubts over his performances in big games can also be shut out by a simple look at how he has performed in the Champions League with both RB Salzburg and Dortmund. Haaland has 23 goals in 19 games in the world’s best club competition, although he hasn’t advanced past the round of 16 yet. That isn’t really his fault, given the two teams he has played for weren’t of the calibre to reach the quarter-finals and beyond. He also has five goals in seven appearances against Bayern.

While he handled the transition from Austria to Germany very well, the jump from the Bundesliga to the Premier League isn’t the same. A lot of forwards arriving from the German top division have struggled to adapt to the demands of the English top-flight—names such as Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Jadon Sancho come to mind immediately. These aren’t bad players, and they have had good performances in England, but they are not close to the level they were in Germany.

In an article titled ‘Is the Bundesliga Tax real?’, writer Grace Robertson correctly claims that the so-called ‘tax’ isn’t about the pace of the Premier League so much so as the physicality. Werner, who scored over 30 goals in his last season with RB Leipzig, is yet to hit that mark in two full seasons with Chelsea, scoring 23 goals in 89 appearances. 

“The Bundesliga is fairly unique in being such a transition-based league. Players who primarily blitz opponents on the counter, such as Werner, get more chances to do it in Germany than anywhere else in the world. If you want that kind of football elsewhere, you have to tactically adapt. It took Jürgen Klopp years to figure out how to change his template for English football, adding quality from the full backs to both dominate when in possession help force those transition moments.”

Grace Robertson, football writer

Havertz and Werner both claimed that the intensity and physicality of the Premier League took them by surprise. Former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard said, “With Timo and Kai, there was clearly going to be adaptation issues. I know that from being in it because they were shocked at the speed of training, they were shocked by the physical demands of the game.” 

Werner’s game in the Bundesliga was built on pace while Havertz is a very intelligent footballer, who became the first player to score 35 goals before the age of 21 in the league (a record that Haaland broke). Their success has not yet translated to English football after almost two full seasons here. 

Haaland theoretically should not face these issues of physicality which the Chelsea duo did. He’s way stronger than them and can probably bench press both of them together if he wants to. But to go from 34 games in Germany to 38 high-intensity games against Premier League opponents won’t be easy. For example, even Romelu Lukaku, a physical specimen in his own right, has struggled to adapt to Chelsea’s system and get his groove back in the Premier League (to be fair, his issues seem more tactical and mental than physical. But you get the point).

It then becomes a question of transition to England as well as a massive change from the counter-attack of Dortmund to the possession-based style of Guardiola where every player is trained in a highly specific way to create the smallest advantage possible. 

Every single team in the Premier League (with the exception of Liverpool) try to play a low block against Man City more often than not. At Dortmund, Haaland thrived on counter-attacks; with City, he will have to improve his movement both on and off the ball to fit the system.

As per WhoScored, Out of the 99 goals scored by City this season, only two have come from the counter-attack (ranking 11th in the league). They lead the league in open play goals scored (65) as well as possession (67.9%). Dortmund, meanwhile, scored seven counter-attacking goals (third in the league) and 50 from open play while having 59% possession. While these stats may not seem too far apart, keep in mind the differences between the two leagues and how teams defend against Dortmund as opposed to against Man City.

And now the kicker—City average close to 690 passes per game while Dortmund sit back at 574, a difference of almost 120 passes. No one passes quite like a team coached by Guardiola, we’re well aware of that. Haaland probably won’t find the space to run into behind defences and counter-attacks with the ease that he had at Dortmund.

There’s also the issue of how much time he has on the ball; Haaland is not a great passer. Compare him to Europe’s best forwards, and he’s miles behind them. Karim Benzema makes 41 passes per 90 minutes; Kylian Mbappé 38.9, Mohamed Salah 35. Cristiano Ronaldo, who was criticised for what he offers to Man United’s build-up is at 32.4. Haaland? He sits at 22 per game. 

“Among players who have filled the striker slot for City this season, Phil Foden completes 40.5 passes per 90 minutes, Gabriel Jesus 36, Raheem Sterling 35, Jack Grealish 41.6. Haaland has one (yes: one) accurate long pass in the Bundesliga this season. Foden has attempted 26 of these, Jesus 22. Haaland hasn’t made a single accurate cross. Mbappé has 19 of them.”

Barney Ronay, The Guardian

Fantasy Premier League players and anyone who has seen Man City play their team can relate—the goals come from anywhere and everywhere. Foden terrorised Liverpool, Riyad Mahrez can score if you give him an inch of space, Kevin De Bruyne transcends dimensions (and superlatives) when he decides to take those long-range shots. The list simply does not stop here. Even Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte are major set-piece threats. Let us not forget Raheem Sterling or Bernardo Silva. Might as well slide João Cancelo in while we’re at it, too!

For all the talk of a lack of a goalscorer in City’s team, they have scored more league goals than Liverpool, who have arguably the most lethal front three in the world this season. City’s completeness is such that Guardiola can play virtually any attacker in the false 9 or striker role and, combined with the rest of the team, they can cause you a ton of trouble with their passing and movement—one of these areas, Haaland is very weak at. For more context, here’s where he ranks in passing statistics as compared to forwards across Europe:

Erling Haaland passing statistics

Pep Guardiola vs. Strikers

There’s also Guardiola’s history with strikers to be considered here. Take the example of Zlatan Ibrahimović, who joined Barcelona with high expectations in 2009, coming in to add physicality and even more goals to a team that had just won the sextuple. 

Ibrahimovic did not fit and fell out with Guardiola, mocking other members of the squad as “obedient little schoolboys.” He then left in 2010. Of course, Haaland doesn’t seem to have Zlatan’s ego, and unlike Barcelona, where Pep had the best player of all time in Lionel Messi, that is not the case with Man City. Even so, traditional centre-forwards like Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o also flanked Messi in their brilliant 2009 season and were gone after a year.

The other two top-class strikers Guardiola worked with, however, have a better story. David Villa succeeded under the Spaniard and Lewandowski thrived. As did Sergio Agüero, to an extent, as he did score a lot of goals for Pep (124 goals in 189 appearances).

However, not all was peachy for Agüero either. He scored nine goals in his first five games for Guardiola when the Catalan first arrived, netting a hattrick in the Champions League. After a brace at Swansea followed, Guardiola had this to say about Aguero: “Sergio just has a talent to score goals that is natural, I cannot teach him that. What I can tell him is there is a team behind him that is going to help him. I want to convince him to help them and, if it happens in that way, he’s going to score a lot of goals… I want to convince him to help them” – 

This clearly indicates that Guardiola places more emphasis on a more complete style of play as opposed to letting his striker simply being happy with a goal every other game.

In came Jesus, slowly displacing Agüero from the starting eleven. In fact, Agüero once complained that his teammates were not passing the ball to him as much anymore—having averaged over 50 touches per 90 minutes before Guardiola’s arrival, the numbers dipped below 40 touches in later seasons. Sky Sports breaks down the Argentine’s involvement on the field:

Sergio Aguero Touches Per 90 Minutes

We’re talking about one of the most decorated scoring figures in the history of the Premier League. Agüero’s injuries did not help his City career under Guardiola, but to blame everything on that would be incorrect. 

Guardiola also demands more from his players than Jack Grealish from his barber. There’s a reason he spends millions and millions on his team as not everyone in the world can play the football that he desires. Take, for example, the non-negotiables in a team coached by the two-time Champions League winner.

In a Premier League game back in 2021 vs Leicester that City won 2-0, De Bruyne had an assist in a midfield masterclass. Guardiola focused his post-game praise on another aspect as his midfielder regained possession 14 times and contested 20 duels: 

“This is one of our identities. When the most talented players in the world are able to do this kind of job. There is no negotiation on this. You can play really badly but in terms of running and pressing for your team-mates until the end, we have to do it. Do it for your mates, because in the next action your mates are going to do it for you. We cannot deny that in the five years we were together the players we had run and fight every single game. That is one of the things I am proud of the most.”

Haaland certainly fits the bill of being one of the most talented players in the world. But as Pep has clarified, you can score five goals in two games and he might still be unhappy over your performance if you don’t do the other things well. Just ask Thierry Henry—the former striker revealed in 2020 that Guardiola subbed him in a league game once because he was not sticking to the position assigned to him. Henry scored in that game, but due to his disobedience of his manager’s instructions, he came off in the second half:

“Pep Guardiola had a plan. If you don’t actually do what he’s asking you to do, you’re going to be in trouble,”

Thierry Henry

If someone like Thierry Henry isn’t immune to Guardiola’s tough coaching, who really is?

In City’s case, things other than scoring—the high press, the ability to pass from the back, and the versatility of the players—are what separate them from the best teams I have seen. 

Haaland does not need to sit next to Ederson or Cancelo when they play from the back, but he will need to do more in the opponent’s half.

As per The Analyst, in 2020-21, Haaland won possession back for his side 39 times, at an average of 1.9 per 90 minutes. Of the 80 forwards to have scored 10 or more goals within the top five European leagues last season, only seven won possession back less frequently on average than the ex-Dortmund man. 

Haaland and Pep’s Need for Earnest Adaptation

For all of the jokes about Pep overthinking and shooting himself in the foot, the genius of the man remains unquestioned. While statistics tell us that Haaland will need to adjust his game to succeed at Man City, they also tell us that his poor pressing and passing stats don’t mean that the task facing him is impossible to complete. 

As per The Analyst’s data, Agüero’s rate to win the ball back steadily dropped, from winning possession back at a rate of 3.5 per 90 in 2015-16 to just 1.7 in 2020-21, his last season with the club. They write: 

“This begins to demonstrate that Guardiola’s running and pressing until the end is not quite as advertised. The idea that Guardiola strikers have to run themselves into the ground for scant reward is a horror story Mino Raiola might try to spin for his new favourite client. But Agüero’s experience shows it is more of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship.”

In 2019-20, Aguero averaged 9.1 touches in the opponent’s box. Haaland is averaging 7.6 this season, which ranks amongst the top 96 percentile in Europe (as compared to other forwards). If Agüero, in his declining phase, got so much action in the box, there is nothing to suggest that Haaland won’t be as good. 

And then, of course, there’s the small matter of how good a finisher Haaland is. The man could find Man City’s Champions League trophy with his shot—poetically, that is what they have signed him for. The Norway international has consistently outperformed his expected goals tally in all three of his Dortmund seasons.

Take a look at his Champions League shot chart:

Erling Haaland Champions League Shots Chart

Haaland is the kind of player who doesn’t mind how many touches he gets as long as he is able to latch on to the final one. The journey is worth more than the destination to some people, but not to this man, whose primary aim is to score. Luckily for him, he has De Bruyne behind him, a player who will act as your guide in the journey to find the goal. He can be the Remus Lupin to Haaland’s Harry Potter, while Guardiola sits on the sidelines like Albus Dumbledore. 

In fact, we might as well ask Haaland to pick his favourite shot-creator—De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez, Grealish—the list, yet again, is long and scary to look at. City average three through balls a game (tied-most in the Prem), 644 short passes (most), and 22 crosses (second-most). We already know how much they love to keep possession, while also averaging 18.3 shots per game without a proper striker for the most season. 

Stats are important to understand a player’s flaws and how they fit with the other team, but they are certainly not set in stone. 

“I can only say that every player – no matter how long he was with us – has learned a great deal from Pep. He improved every single player. I know that I don’t have to score in every single game for the coach to be happy with my performance. Sometimes my movements on the pitch are more important for him, how I exploit the space and how I generally perform. I am not a striker who is only waiting in the penalty box to score a goal. I move, make passes and look for opportunities for others.”

Robert Lewandowski after Guardiola’s exit from Bayern in 2016

Lewandowski scored 67 goals in 100 appearances under Guardiola. While his scoring rate improved under Hansi Flick, the Catalan’s influence on the Polish international is clear. The coach has a history of improving almost every player he has worked with and very few players have something ill to say about Guardiola (Zlatan and Yaya Touré roll their eyes).

More than anything, Pep is a winner who hates it when his team loses. His Champions League failures since Barcelona have left him with a point to prove. Haaland shares these traits with his new coach—an eccentric personality whose drive to win is commendable. You would be a bold man to bet against the striker succeeding with Man City.

There was a tweet going viral on football Twitter after City announced the signing of Haaland where non-professionals were asked how many goals they would expect to score as a City player, provided you can play 90 minutes every game and not be subbed off regardless of how you perform. The logical answer would be zero—I certainly don’t think I can score against a professional goalkeeper and defense despite having the world’s best system behind me. However, a nanoscopic part of me (that would be hysterically laughed at) did wonder for a moment; with unlimited service and the ability to remain in the box waiting to take any shot that comes my way, maybe I could manage to hit at least two?

Replace an unathletic person like me with Haaland in this scenario. Now it sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Will Haaland have to adapt or will Pep tweak his system for the most high-profile Man City signing under his tenure? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, however—City’s chances to finally grab that elusive Champions League trophy have definitely increased with the arrival of someone who can go down as one of the greatest strikers we will ever see.

Taha Memon

20 year old who likes everything black and white - especially football. Liverpool fan, aspiring journalist, comic enthusiast, and a TV show buff.