After months of endless speculation, with different suitors taking the lead every other week, Erling Haaland will be (finally) entering the next phase of his career when he plays for Manchester City next season.
Since making his professional debut at the age of 15, the Norwegian has rocketed straight to the top of the game, to the point where he has become one of the most coveted centre-forwards in world football.
The 2021/22 Premier League champions, Manchester City, announced earlier this May that the 21-year-old would be on his way to the Etihad Stadium. The release clause of £63 million is effectively a bargain for City given the potential Haaland possesses, because of which they have tied him down to a five-year deal that is reportedly worth £375,000-a-week.
At the end of the day, it is a homecoming of sorts for Erling, whose father (and now, also his agent) Alf-Inge Haaland represented City from 2000 to 2002 during the latter stages of his career.
So, without any further ado, let’s dive into this piece. where I’ll be looking to break down Pep Guardiola’s Juego de Posición, its ever-evolving nature, and how Haaland could turn out to be the final missing piece in Pep’s jigsaw puzzle.
Also Read – The 2021/22 Season Review: Arsenal
What is Juego de Posición?
The Italians know it as “Gioco di Posizione” and the Dutch call it “Positiespel”, while in England we call this football philosophy “Positional Play”. This interpretation of football through the prism of positional play is one of the main reasons behind the success of one of the greatest football coaches in history.
Juego de Posición is a philosophy that has many principles, but the fundamental principle is the search for superiority.
Positional Play doesn’t consist of passing the ball horizontally, but something much more difficult: it consists of generating superiorities behind each line of pressure. It can be achieved more or less quickly, more or less vertically, more or less grouped, but the only thing that should be maintained at all times is the pursuit of superiority, or to put it in another way: creating free men between the lines.
It is a model of constructed play that is premeditated, thought about, studied and worked out in detail. The interpreters of this variation of play know the various possibilities that can occur during the game and also what their roles should be at all times. Generally, the interpreters of this model need to know the catalogue of movements that need to be executed in depth. Thus, like any other model of play, there are better or worse interpreters, and then there are players that never manage to adapt to this model of play.
As in any piece of music, one same score can give rise to many different interpretations: faster, slower, more harmonious, and more vibrant. But then, the tune should be similar to the original score. In a similar vein, Positional Play is a musical score played by each team who practice it at their own pace, but the objective remains the same: to generate superiorities behind each line of the opponent’s pressure. The team that interpreted Positional Play in the most extraordinary way with genuine success was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
After Pep left, Barça did continue to play the same game under different managers, but they gradually lost focus and intensity in fundamental movements, to the point that it became a very flat and predictable variation of play with a tendency to pass horizontally that ultimately reduced the possibility of generating superiorities between or after the lines of pressure of the opponent. This is one of the main reasons why Barça have fared miserably in the last couple of seasons (especially in Europe), but this is just one of many underlying reasons.
Pep with a traditional #9
At Bayern Munich, Pep initially promoted Louis van Gaal’s Positional Play, which was introduced five years prior to his arrival. But what he moulded that into is by far the most ambitious interpretation of the model. His Bayern team played a game that was much more oriented to a vertical axis than a horizontal one, and it required a very high degree of technical excellence because it seeked to construct the above-mentioned superiorities on a vertical axis rather than relying on playing through the horizontal axis, something his Barça used to excel in.
But, unlike his Barcelona team that usually operated in a 4-3-3, Pep’s Bayern had different systems in place, which meant there was constant changing and shuffling of formations and setups. Moving away from Jupp Heynckes’ orthodox 4-2-3-1, Guardiola implemented his own 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 systems, where the impetus was more on moving the ball vertically at a faster rate, passing the opposition into submission.
One of the main reasons for Pep to use such a wide array of systems is due to the fact that most of the first-team players never really stayed fit enough for him to have a single point of reference. There was constant chopping-and-changing, and as a result, he implemented different systems at different stages of his tenure as a mechanism to bring out the best from the handful of players he had at his disposal.
Building from the back
Now, using the goalkeeper is another way to establish superiority out of defence, progress the ball past the opposition pressure lines and move up the field to create an advantageous attack. This is known as “la salida lavolpiana”. This is a variation in which the central defenders fan out wide and a defensive/central midfielder drops into the resulting space. This movement creates a 3v2 situation when playing out of defence, meaning there is always a free man. The fullbacks push up into midfield as the central defenders fan out not only to provide a passing option but to provide numerical superiority in midfield as well. This ascending superiority provides an advantageous path towards the opponent’s goal.
At Bayern Munich, Pep had arguably the greatest fullback pairing at the time in Philip Lahm and David Alaba, and they exhibited their quality by making overlapping offensive runs and putting in quality crosses game in, game out. Both of them were also comfortable on the ball. Alaba, in particular, was often used to playing in midfield for the Austrian national team, so Pep often looked to invert his fullbacks into midfield, especially against teams that used the single-forward systems.
Against two-forward systems, often one of Bayern’s fullbacks would drop deep to make it a back three with the centre-backs, while the other pushed higher up alongside Xani Alonso in the heart of the midfield, hence providing the team defensive solidarity.
Now, in LaLiga, when you lose the ball in the opposition’s defensive third, unless they immediately push up, the opposition commence a period of possession where they try to play out from the back. This would give Pep’s Barça time to regain their shape. In the Bundesliga, however, when the ball is lost higher up the pitch, the opposition looks to hit hard and fast on transitional play and try to hit on the counter. A single pivot, in this case, would expose Pep’s team’s defensive fragility, but with inverted fullbacks forming the second line of defence, Pep’s Bayern retained the numerical superiority on the break and nullified most transitions.
Overloading the half-spaces
Apart from maintaining defensive shape and structure, this 2-3-5 structure had its offensive advantages as well: it gave the ball-playing CBs more passing options, and in transition, it gave the team a numerical advantage against the opposition’s second line of defence, keeping them always second-guessing as to who to press and where to initiate said press.
Pep’s target was simple: get the team structured in such a way so that his explosive wide forwards could get themselves into as many decisive 1v1 situations as they could. With their change of pace and trickery, spaces would open up in between the half-spaces as the play progressed up the pitch. But when these wide forwards were not given the time and space to express themselves, as teams would start sitting deeper and deeper, Pep would find other avenues to outmuscle his opponents.
If the opposition fullbacks sat back and their wingers tucked in man-to-man against Bayern’s inverted fullbacks, it gave time and space to the two free #8s to push up the pitch and pin back the opposition’s double pivot. In fact, both Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Müller enjoyed their best seasons in terms of output under Guardiola.
If the opposition fullbacks tucked in to provide central solidity, the switch to either winger was on as they’d most of the time be isolated by the touchline, meaning the fullbacks would have to peel off from the structure and engage in a 1v1, which was Pep’s target. Moreover, if either of the sitting midfielders pushed up to attack the ball, Müller or Thiago would often find themselves in a 2v1 against the other pivot.
It is important to note, though, that the Bayern fullbacks still on occasions tried to overlap the wingers, and the space left behind would be occupied by the free #8s on their respective sides to provide the final line-breaking pass. Often the wingers and fullbacks interchanged down the flanks and their positional inter-play was pivotal to dislodging the defensive structure of their opponents.
Breaking down defences
Now, after talking about their defensive shape, the initial build-up phase and the transitional phase where they assert dominance en route to progressing the ball in the final third, we are now going to look at how Pep integrated a traditional #9 in his system.
Just like the rest of the team, Robert Lewandowski also thrived under Pep Guardiola. There was scepticism about how Pep would be able to integrate a more traditional #9, given he employed a false-nine at Barça.
Well, the Polish striker did everything he did while he was at Borussia Dortmund, pushing high up the pitch and disorienting defences with his runs, but he also showed his on-the-ball ability. He would often drop deep into the midfield and was involved in the build-up play as he looked to form 3v2 situations in the final third, and underlying stats would back this up as he made more passes during the Pep era than any other period in his career, more importantly, progressive passes. Müller, who often operated as the more advanced of the two free #8s, truly thrived in these regions as the Raumdeuter, making runs into spaces vacated by Lewandowski and scoring goals for fun. The freedom that the system allowed him meant that the Pep era was by far his most prolific era.
But the main goal in these advanced areas was to get the ball high and wide on the pitch and rotate the ball using a 3v2 to force the opposition on the flanks. This then freed up the far-side winger, and inverted fullbacks would then push up to take the vacant half-space, so when the switch came it usually resulted in 2v1 overloads for Bayern to take on, or the player with the ball running in-field towards the byline to deliver a high-quality ball across the six-yard box. While all this occurred, the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller attacked the spaces inside the box.
Pep’s machine-like Manchester City
Over two extraordinary seasons, during which Pep’s Manchester City won back-to-back Premier League titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19, having amassed 198 points in all including a 100-point season, it was the Champions League title that eluded them. They also won the Carabao Cup during those seasons and the FA Cup in 2018/19, completing a historic domestic treble, but narrow losses to Liverpool in 2017/18 and Tottenham Hotspur in 2018/19 both at the Quarter-final stage of the Champions League left a sour taste in the mouth of every City player, and Guardiola in particular.
However, Pep’s boys were in for a rude awakening. Although they brought in key additions ahead of the 2019/20 season in Rodri and João Cancelo, they also lost a key figure in Vincent Kompany alongwith the out-of-favour Fabian Delph.
While Pep’s teams were able to circumvent injuries during both their title-winning seasons, long-term injuries to key personnel and no adequate replacement for those stars meant City couldn’t gain any sort of momentum whatsoever – more importantly, the long-term absence of their star man Sergio Agüero. Thus, Pep had to resort to solutions like playing Fernandinho as the left-sided centre-back alongside Nicholas Otamendi, while Benjamin Mendy took up the role of the left-back in the absence of Oleksandr Zinchenko.
However, just like his first season, during which Pep struggled without a left-footed centre-back, Fernandinho’s right-footedness meant City became predictable while playing out the back as well as the lack of dynamism he had compared to someone like Aymeric Laporte while running with the ball. In addition, while Rodri was excellent on the ball, he was still in his first season and played way safer (only playing high-percentage passes and looking to just recycle possession instead of breaking the lines with some of his incisive passes that we’ve become accustomed to of late) than Pep would’ve ideally wanted. Moreover, since Mendy was more of a traditional fullback compared to the likes of Delph and Zinchenko, it’d often mess with City’s build-up structure, creating unnecessary overload or spaces in some instances.
Pep had to quickly find a solution to this midfield vacuum. In matches where he had to go with Mendy as the starting left-back, it was often one of the two free #8s (İlkay Gündoğan or David Silva) dropping deep alongside Rodri as a supporting pivot during build-up and transition. Furthermore, playing with just one attacking midfielder meant that the threat between the lines was a lot less, as the opposition defence was no longer getting outnumbered.
While the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons showed Pep gradually introducing the idea of inverted wingers into his system, major injuries in the 2019/20 season meant it was rather forced on them. So, with the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling inverting from the flanks, it meant Mendy on the left and usually Kevin De Bruyne down the right would look to overlap the wingers, trying to make it a five-man attack. But the problem here was that both of them would prove to be not very good 1v1 players, and rather looked to whip in crosses than run into the box. This made them more predictable in the final third as City lacked good or even decent headers of the ball. Although both Sterling and Mahrez could still make runs from the half-spaces, they would be receiving the ball on their weaker foot, making it difficult for them to put in first-time crosses, a small detail but a rather important one when taken into context.
Reverting to false-nine systems
The 2020/21 season was another pivotal season for City, given that there were lots of questions aimed at them, specifically at Pep and his striker-less system.
Here, he used three different systems at different stages during the season. He initially started with the traditional 4-2-3-1 with De Bruyne out injured but found no success as they struggled to see out games and at one point were languishing in 13th before Pep reverted to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, which did give the team some stability, but the better teams still found ways to play through them.
In the end, it was a 4-4-2 system that worked out for him. By 4-4-2, I don’t mean the traditional 4-4-2; with Pep you can be assured that there would hardly be anything normal about his teams, as his 4-4-2 system includes two false-nines. With both fullbacks comfortable on the ball, they’d invert into the midfield, which gave them not only a numerical advantage but also allowed the free #8s to drop even alongside the inverted fullbacks to escape the opposition pressure. But unlike Kyle Walker or Oleksandr Zinchenko, João Cancelo would push further up into the half-spaces and try to create an overload with the winger or create positional rotations.
Moreover, with Cancelo and Bernardo Silva creating an overload with Mahrez on the right flank, it left someone like İlkay Gündoğan to roam around like a Raumdeuter and finish chances inside the box. In fact, during the 2020/21 season, it was Gündoğan who finished the season as City’s top goalscorer.
Now, while the 4-3-3 and other systems emphasised creating superiorities in the wide areas, the main aim of Pep’s tweaked 4-4-2 was to create superiorities in the middle of the pitch. The two false-nines operating would be Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and (later) Jack Grealish rotated as the left midfielders, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus as the right midfielders, with İlkay Gündoğan and Rodri operating as the two central midfielders.
This superiority was facilitated by Zinchenko drifting more centrally, while the two false-nines dropped deep to create a five-man overload in the central area. Moreover, this still allowed City to have an isolated winger on either flank for 1v1 situations, which meant creating overloads on the flanks and switching of play was much easier.
It is simply astonishing what Pep has achieved thus far with City, especially in the last two seasons without a proper striker or a system that didn’t require a proper striker.
Erling Haaland: The player
Very few players have burst onto the scene and delivered consistent performances like Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland. His combination of freakish athleticism and incredible finishing are assets any team would love to have at their disposal, especially from someone who at just 21 years of age has the potential to become one of the greatest players of his generation.
While the name Erling Haaland first came into prominence when he scored nine goals in a match against Honduras in the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup, it was his performances for RB Salzburg in the UEFA Champions League, in particular, that put him on the radar of the European elite. Thus, after scoring 29 goals and providing 5 assists in 27 games for RB Salzburg, Haaland made the move to Germany to play for Die Schwarzgelben.
Although it was a bigger jump in terms of the level of competition, for Dortmund, the Norwegian played 89 games in total, scoring 86 goals and providing another 23 assists. Moreover, his performances in the Champions League showed that he was not just any flat-track bully but the real deal. He is a prolific goalscorer and someone who is getting better with each game.
With regards to his off-the-ball work, Haaland is one of the best in the world both in and outside the box. There are a couple of reasons for his success: the tactical and positional awareness that he possesses, and his incredible change of speed and intensity in making those runs, while his biggest strength is his elite decision making. Indeed, more often than not the Norwegian knows exactly which run to make and when to make it, making it almost impossible for his markers to keep up with him.
However, Haaland’s trademark positioning is when he places himself between the opposition defenders, always being on their shoulders. This allows him to run into the box by making a blindside run into the channels, mostly the left one. With defenders more often than not focused on the ball, Haaland ghosts in behind them without being seen, while his rapid acceleration makes it extremely difficult to catch him.
One of the best ways Haaland finds space inside the box is by using a feint movement. This allows him to drag defenders to a certain area and then peel off that defender into space, while the defender is too committed and wrong-footed by the first movement made by Haaland. This has been fundamental in him scoring bucket-loads of goals from in and around the six-yard box as he can use his rapid acceleration and movement to create separation in very tight spaces.
Furthermore, Haaland is a master at creating separations by holding his run inside the box. While defenders usually drop back as far as possible when the opposition is attacking from wide areas, in holding a run, it gives the striker space for a cutback. More importantly, it presents them with more options. They can either hold their runs, sit back for a cutback, or make a run on either side of the defender while the defender is essentially waiting for the striker’s movement to make a reaction.
Hold-up play and creativity
Erling Haaland not only contributes to the game in and around the box but also in the build-up phase. Although he has shown glimpses of great hold-up and link-up play, it is an area that needs a lot more polishing. His giant frame and physicality were great assets for Dortmund as it allowed them to launch long balls to him whenever they needed to beat a press. He could always outmuscle opponents with his strength or use his long legs to play one-twos and progress play further.
But how does this facet of his play come through when playing against teams sitting back with two backs of four or a four in front of a five?
Haaland has often been seen using the ‘Hollow Out’ technique to pin the defender, even if it is a technique used more often by players with a smaller build. Haaland lowers his body position so that defenders can’t gain leverage as his centre of mass is lower, which makes it harder for the defenders to push him off balance. Furthermore, his wide stance also helps him balance as well as allows for a better reaction and first touch of the ball when it gets to him.
Given Haaland is taller than most defenders, it becomes harder for him to push his hips back. So, he uses his back to hold the defender(s) off. Thus, once the ball gets to him, he can receive the ball at an angle such that there is adequate space between the ball and the defender. However, there will also be times when Haaland won’t engage in hold-up situations even when there is a clear size advantage against the defender.
And the underlying stats back this up. Erling is receiving just 58% of passes to him, which ranks him in the 30th percentile for forwards in Europe’s top-five leagues. Moreover, his passing and ball distribution has been a hit and miss, and it is reflected by a measly 72% pass completion rate. This is largely due to the fact that most of his passes are first-time flicks or layoffs, which are low-percentage passes. Although there have been those occasional quality passes or crosses that require a very high level of technical ability, his execution is usually subpar and average when the passes are required to be short or crisp. He tends to either overhit passes or is unable to hit the ball into the intended target’s stride.
Thus, this is one aspect of his game that can be worked on. However, his shortcomings in this department should not come as a surprise. There is always that correlation between players who tend to have better ball control and touch, and having a higher pass execution rate. But the Norwegian is not that type of player. His stature makes it difficult for him to control the ball at times as the ball cannons off his legs quite frequently, but it is an aspect of his game that he is getting better at all the time.
Just like passing, dribbling with or without the ball, carrying play forward, and offensive take-on are all part of one’s creative game as well. Haaland’s dribbling is on a similar level to his passing — just above average. But that doesn’t mean he cannot hold his own in this department. His speed and physicality become huge assets in 1v1 situations, helping him win more than half of his take-ons, but on a lower volume — 1.55 dribblers per game over the last two seasons.
Moreover, Haaland has also shown some proficiency in controlling the ball in tight spaces, which gives a positive indication of improvement in the future. However, his ball-carrying ability is more effective in open spaces as he can then create chances by executing a good pass or taking on a shot himself.
Now, there are primarily three metrics that one can consider to gauge a player’s creativity and the creative impact he has on his team’s overall play: shot-creating actions, expected goals assisted and key passes per 90’.
For shot-creating actions, the Norwegian has produced 2.6 SCAs which ranks him in the 73rd percentile among forwards across Europe’s top-five leagues, while he is averaging just one key pass per 90’. However, when we look at his expected goals assisted metric (xA), which is 0.34 per 90’, it ranks him in the 96th percentile across Europe. It is evident here that he isn’t creating these quality chances by passing alone. How, then, is he doing it?
Dribbling is hardly an argument, since he still needs more polishing there, but it is his off-the-ball movement that creates great opportunities for his teammates the same way he creates for himself. His high xA attempts usually come from using his blindsided runs into the left channel where he looks to pass and play someone in rather than shooting himself.
It is also important to note that, although there might be some regression in his xA numbers over the next few seasons, he will still be a decent creator for a striker, as he can still create space for his teammates with his movement, occupying defenders, and allowing his fellow teammates to take advantage of the extra time and space provided.
His movement also creates chances for others, because teams are wary of the threat Haaland poses. So they’ll focus more on him, which opens up spaces for his teammates to exploit.
After bursting onto the scene by scoring 29 goals in 27 games as an 18-year-old at Austrian side RB Salzburg, it wasn’t long before Haaland made the jump to elite European football when he signed for Borussia Dortmund during Bundesliga’s winter break of the 2019-20 season.
Since that time, he has continued to score in more or less the same vein, scoring a vast amount of goals at an astonishingly consistent rate. In 89 matches for Dortmund across all competitions, Haaland has scored 86 goals and also provided 22 assists to contribute to his team’s play. That equates to an average of one goal every 83.76 minutes in the 7,204 minutes of football he has played for Dortmund.
However, once you take a closer look at Haaland’s goal haul at Dortmund, you get an insight into the kind of visceral, instinctive and powerful striker he has become. A vast majority of his 86 goals have come from inside the penalty area (83), with only three finding the net from outside the 18-yard box. Although mostly left-footed, he has scored a fair amount of goals with his right foot as well, while his aerial ability can’t be overlooked either. In short, when positioned inside the box, Haaland’s the complete package.
A total of 72 goals scored by Haaland have come from open play, while more than half (49) of his 86 goals have been scored with his first touch, emphasising the striker’s innate ability to time his runs to perfection in order to race in and apply the finishing touch to an attacking move.
Haaland’s playing style is typified by his scorching pace, physical prowess and deadly accuracy in front of goal. In 30 games across all competitions for Dortmund last season, he scored 29 goals from 98 shots in total with 47 of them on target. Therefore, 47.95% of the shots he fired found the target, while about 29.59% of them resulted in a goal being scored.
Potent finishing aside, it is perhaps Haaland’s electric pace that remains the most intimidating weapon in his arsenal. He has incredible acceleration and top speed for a 6’4″ tall footballer, and it has helped him contribute both offensively and defensively to his team’s play. Since he joined Borussia Dortmund in January 2020, only two players in Europe’s top-five leagues have scored more goals than him: Kylian Mbappé (93) of Paris Saint-Germain and Robert Lewandowski (123) of Bayern Munich.
Haaland is third on the list with Cristiano Ronaldo (85) behind him. However, the new Manchester City centre-forward has amassed his goals tally in significantly fewer games (88), while all three of Mbappé, Lewandowski and Ronaldo have played well over 100 games during the same period.
While people might point to the fact that the level of competition isn’t high enough in the German topflight (cases like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz justifying that argument to some extent), numbers in Europe’s most elite club competition outlines his world-class pedigree. Since his debut in the competition for RB Salzburg in September 2019, Haaland is the third-highest goalscorer (23) in the Champions League, behind only Karim Benzema (26) and Robert Lewandowski (33).
But, while both Benzema and Lewandowski played 27 and 29 UCL games for their teams respectively, Haaland amassed his 23 UCL goals in just 19 outings. Besides, he took just 14 matches to reach 20 goals, which is a competition record, while no player has scored more in the competition before turning 21 than Haaland.
How Haaland could unlock Manchester City
While Haaland played most of his games for Dortmund in a 4-2-3-1 system, the 4-3-3 was also used in many instances, which is likely to be Guardiola’s preferred formation for next season.
Now, City aren’t goal-shy given they found the back of the net 99 times (league best) in the Premier League last season. Thanks to Pep’s positional play, even without a recognised centre-forward, his system allowed the City players from different positions to drift in and out of attacking situations and look to apply the finishing touch to the chances on hand. This could be De Bruyne pushing up from deep, Sterling or Mahrez cutting inside from the wide positions, or someone like Phil Foden playing as a false-nine.
However, last season, in particular, City struggled to see off teams with low blocks with certain pressing trigger points. Moreover, teams that have looked to keep as much central cover as possible have been a headache for Pep too. The defeat to Crystal Palace at home and the home and away defeats to Tottenham Hotspur have all been similar in that they suffocated City centrally and left them clueless. And this is where Erling Haaland comes in as the likely solution.
On the offence, City’s build-up formation will often resemble the 2-5-3 or the 2-3-2-3 systems, with a clear idea of creating overloads out wide.
Let’s take the City left flank for instance. Here, the trio of João Cancelo, Raheem Sterling and İlkay Gündoğan will look to create overloads and try to play in Sterling on the turn behind the defenders. The idea is to deliver a cross or a low-whipped ball between the goal line and penalty spot, also known as the area of maximum opportunity.
If you look at Haaland’s shot map at Dortmund, you can see he is at his prolific best when operating in these areas, while the graph also shows his slight preference towards the left-sided channel where he uses his stronger left foot to rifle in shots.
Haaland shot map for Dortmund (via understat.com)
So, when City do get the ball into these areas, Haaland could use his excellent off-the-ball movement and impeccable first touch to slot home the cutbacks or low crosses, while his aerial presence (1.91m) means City will always be the game with set-pieces and corners or aerial balls from similar attacking situations.
With the low-block system out of the way, let’s look at how Haaland will help City against high-pressing teams.
Now, it is a known fact that the wingers in Pep’s Man City like to hug the touchline, but when there is space on offer they curve their runs behind the shoulder of the fullbacks and centre-backs to get on the end of any long balls played by the backline. The current system also uses the same tactics, where the false-nine drops deep, dragging the centre-back with him which frees up more space for the wingers to run into.
Although Haaland’s movement will create space for the wingers to run into, his own pace and acceleration mean he could drift slightly wider to create gaps before driving up the pitch with the ball at his feet, as seen during his time at Dortmund. One combination that I can see repeating over and over is Haaland dropping deep to receive a long ball (say, from Ederson) and laying it off to one of İlkay Gündoğan or Kevin De Bruyne before using his incredible change of pace and movement to occupy the vacant spaces, where one of İlkay or KDB would look to play a loopy ball over the top or a nicely-waited pass breaking the lines.
However, more than anything else, Haaland’s presence will make City’s build-up play a lot easier. Due to the lack of tall and physical players in their forward line, despite having an excellent distributor of the ball in Ederson Moraes, City have rarely looked to bypass the first two lines of defence over the last two seasons, but with Haaland up top, Ederson could use his accurate passing ability to find the Norwegian, and from there City could exploit the opposition with fewer men behind the ball and more space in front of them.
Now that we have looked at Haaland’s impeccable movement and outstanding finishing, it is time we look at whether he fits in with the foundational cornerstones of this system: defensive and pressing structures.
Having played for Red Bull Salzburg, one of the most aggressively high-pressing teams in Europe, it comes as no surprise that Haaland is extremely effective in a defensive structure with his ability to press and cover distances. If played out from the back, from opposition goal kicks, Haaland quickly tries to press upon one of the two centre-backs and intentionally curves his runs in order to isolate the pair, while ensuring that the player on the ball doesn’t pass it back to the goalkeeper. This is the trigger for his teammates to overload that side of the pitch as the carrier can either play through the press which is extremely difficult since the defending team is already overloading this space or pump the ball up the pitch in the hope that one of his teammates wins the second ball, which is also unlikely (not impossible, though) given the team defending the ball usually outnumber the attacking team in these situations.
Similarly, if City are sitting in their own half and the opposition centre-backs have possession high up the pitch, Haaland is clever enough to hold his press so that as soon as one of the centre-backs plays a pass to his partner he could use his incredible acceleration to close down the player receiving the ball, with half of the pitch cut off for him; with no option to play vertically in front or horizontally sideways, the defender would then pass the ball back to the goalkeeper and force a long ball, allowing City to push higher up the pitch and a chance at winning back possession immediately.
At 21 years old, Erling Braut Haaland is the closest player Pep Guardiola could ever find to fill in the role of that hard-working yet menacing centre-forward. Although there is a certain rawness to his play, there is hardly any other manager in world football at present who can maximise his skill set quite like Guardiola. Haaland is greatness in the making and someone who could take City to the very top of greatness, where hardly any other team have ever been.
However, the only blot on Haaland’s copybook in his short yet exceptional career thus far is that he has already suffered a number of injuries, having spent a total of 143 days sitting on the sidelines due to various injuries. He suffered just the one minor injury in his first season with Dortmund as he missed four games on the bounce. In 2020/21, that rose to four injuries and missing 10 games, while four more injuries in the 2021/22 campaign meant he missed 16 more games this season.
Perhaps the only person who can save the Premier League defenders from suffering the same fate as their Bundesliga counterparts is Erling Haaland himself. But if Pep and Man City can keep their new shiny toy fresh and injury-free, expect a lot of records to tumble and the Cityzens to dominate Europe for years to come.