Manchester City’s director of football was outlining the reasons for the flagship signing of their summer. “Erling has everything we want in a striker,” Txiki Begiristain said. A 90 percent pass completion rate? An ability to make decoy runs to drag defenders out of position? A capacity to be outside the box when others scored for City? Or a willingness to sit on the bench?
Or none of those, because less facetiously and more prosaically, Begiristain had referenced Haaland’s “exceptional” goalscoring record: 86 in 89 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, better than a goal a game in the Champions League in the last three seasons.
Haaland is not yet 22 and has 175 goals for clubs and country to his name. He is shaping up as the outstanding goalscorer of his generation. And he has joined a club who neither needed more goals nor a striker. Not normally, anyway. If lesser forwards than the Norwegian are bought to make teams more prolific, City scored 99 league goals last season anyway. There are occasional matches when a professional finisher would be useful, when their band of technicians draw a blank, and they failed to score six times in their first 18 games last season. There are the Champions League knockout ties when missed chances tend to cost City, when a clinical touch might have helped them realise their ambitions.
In general, however, few have done more to render the specialist goalscorer an endangered species than City. They have normalised the process of winning the title without a striker. Pep Guardiola has brought a revolutionary tactic into the mainstream, making an extreme example of his purism look pragmatic.
And now his task is to dePep himself, to unPep City. He has to do something more conventional: to program the rest of his side to find their centre-forward in the box. Which, as the goalscoring records of Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski and Samuel Eto’o in his teams show, he has been very capable of doing before. Yet he is indelibly associated with his bespoke tactic, the false nine. But City did not pursue the Lionel Messi model; not in one respect anyway. Instead, they went further into the realms of Pepness.
Whereas Messi peaked with 73 goals in his last season under Guardiola, with a half-century in La Liga alone, City have adopted an altogether more democratic approach. They have shared the scoring. Eight players got at least seven Premier League goals last season. In 2020-21, seven of Guardiola’s squad got at least six, five of them with nine or more. The identity of the false nine changed – and some were falser than others – but he was rarely the leading marksman. The identity of the scorer changed; at different times, it was different players.
But City’s tactics did not revolve around getting a spearhead on the ball in the box. Their top scorer in successive seasons has been a central midfielder: first Ilkay Gundogan and then Kevin De Bruyne. The German’s transformation was most instructive, Guardiola taking his ball-striking prowess and using it as a finisher, not a passer, recognising his footballing intelligence and redeploying it to make him burst from deep into the box. Gundogan’s title-winning cameo against Aston Villa came because Guardiola deemed him the best at making off-the-ball runs to the far post.
The other, more established Guardiola ploy has been to get the winger from the opposite flank into the box, often to meet a low cutback. It has enabled first Raheem Sterling and then Riyad Mahrez to enjoy the best scoring seasons of their careers. They have been the closest things to predators in the City squad since Aguero’s body gave way.
But the penalty-box poachers have always been something else as well: a winger, a midfielder, arriving from further out and other angles. Now comes the task of getting goals from a more obvious target. In the process, the supply line changes: a creative player will be sacrificed for a scorer and while Haaland had more assists – seven in the Bundesliga alone – last season than Jack Grealish, the reality is he is less likely to interchange positions with versatile figures such as Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne. There may be less fluency. There will be a greater division of responsibilities. And after the peak Pep era where everyone, to varying degrees, was a midfielder, Manchester City now have an actual centre-forward.