Erling Haaland

Erling Haaland’s history attack opens fresh avenues for Manchester City

Erling Haaland scored his fifth, 58th-minute goal. Not that you would have known it from his celebration, which was more of a non-celebration: a desultory jog, a lip curl, and an eyebrow raise, not the expression of a man who has just written his name into Manchester City history as the look of someone who has found a partly melted Freddo in his pocket.

Everything anticipated Haaland to come off at that point: game won, Luton’s fleeting defiance destroyed, sixth round passage secured. But he didn’t. The clock passed 60, 65, and 70 minutes.

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Still no movement from Pep Guardiola. You lead 5-2. Now Mateo Kovacic has scored, making it 6-2. You have the Manchester United derby this weekend.

Tackles and shoves fly everywhere in an open game. Haaland just returned from injury. Only four subs remain. So, Pep. This is the reasoning?

Naturally, the temptation is to diagnose Pep anxiety: that basic need for stability and reassurance, the safety blanket of an additional goal amid a crazy mood swing of a game, and a terrifying awareness of how the opposition may damage you. Famously, 6–2 is the most hazardous scoreline.

Pep-Guardiola

I have a different theory. Guardiola was probably just as sadistically enchanted as us. He probably wanted to feel one of the few football thrills he had yet to encounter. He wanted Haaland to score six.

This is a power play as well as a strategy, like an Australian cricket captain at the Gabba persistently building up a huge third-innings advantage and refusing to declare.

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Having the most damaging toy in the sport is pointless unless you use it to its fullest. Why buy Haaland if you won’t let him score six against a smaller team on a fraction of your pay bill?

Haaland failed to score six. Various frauds and scams, including a billion-pound blue bottle job. Overall, this was the perfect showcase of finishing, movement, forward play, and how City is striving to work these days.

The kaleidoscopic triangles and meticulous designs of legendary Guardiola City sides are mostly gone. Straight lines have always been the fastest way to goal.

Today’s City team is more impatient, brutally efficient, direct, and physical, with bold straight lines and a dislike for decoration and small talk. The hard-running Jérémy Doku was chosen over Jack Grealish earlier this season, possibly because of this.

Reasons for difficulty Box-to-boxers Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes replaced Cole Palmer and Riyad Mahrez in the summer. Why cities are taller now. The Premier League’s shortest team won the 2018-19 title. Now mid-table, they have been rebuilt and retooled, adding Haaland and Rodri’s height.

This new City directness was arguably best shown in their second goal, a modern variation on route one, with Haaland getting it directly from Stefan Ortega, laying it back to Kevin De Bruyne, and bombing on to receive the through-ball. Even the finish was gun-barrel straight, between Tim Krul’s legs.

Luton’s decision to maintain a high line, build through the thirds, and leave Haaland one-on-one with Teden Mengi shaped City’s strategy.

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Bernardo Silva ran all over the pitch and Nunes went from left to right and back, but this was all distractions and sleight of hand: the illusion of sideways movement while Plan A was to go straight down the middle.

Naturally, additional plans are available. Not all City opponents will be as accommodating as Luton. Not everyone will be so vulnerable to counterattack.

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City’s new technique of holding the ball in deep areas will fail against clubs that don’t entice the press. Even in the fall of Guardiola’s reign, this team is continuously evolving and pushing its limitations.

Finally, the substitute board appeared in the 77th minute. Haaland pretended not to notice. He grudgingly left the pitch, thinking not about his five goals but the five days he had to wait to score another.

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