Erling Haaland Is the Final Stage in Manchester City’s Evolution

So Erling Haaland has reached an agreement to join Manchester City, which to most of his new club’s opponents is like being told that the local tyrannosaurus has grown another molar. The beast was always going to eat you in the end; it doesn’t really matter that it has one more sharp tooth. Manchester City exert so much dominance over the vast majority of the football world that their recruitment of Haaland, a supremely accomplished center forward who is still only 21, feels like an indulgence. Yet Haaland’s imminent signing from Borussia Dortmund is much more than that: It represents a statement of intent, a desire to claim the UEFA Champions League for the first time in Manchester City’s history. For his new team, too, it will mean a significant shift in style, a greater directness of tactical approach—a little like watching a Shakespearean stage actor suddenly go off and star in action movies.

For a player of Haaland’s youth and ability, the transfer fee Manchester will have to pay—Haaland reportedly had a release clause of around $60 million in his contract—is relatively low in a market where stars tend to move for around twice that amount. That fee is due to smart thinking by his management team, which includes his father, Alf-Inge (himself a former Manchester City player), and which wanted to make sure that Haaland would have the widest range of major clubs to choose from when he became available. Nor, in this context, is his reported salary particularly eye-catching given that it is close to what Manchester United are paying Jadon Sancho, or less than, say, Aaron Ramsey was paid by Juventus. No: The most interesting thing here is that, with Haaland in their ranks, City have reached their final form, their last stage of evolution.

Consider this: Until Haaland’s arrival, City had every other type of player on their roster. They had the fullback who could engulf an entire flank with pace alone in the form of Kyle Walker; in João Cancelo, they had one of the world’s best playmaking fullbacks since Dani Alves; they had the hard-running, self-sacrificing midfielder in Bernardo Silva; and the supremely guileful artists in the form of Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne. Yet they have never had a player defined first and foremost by their sheer presence. Not just in physical terms, but in their entire aura. In that sense, Haaland is to Manchester City what Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool. Not just a focal point for his team’s play, but someone who is capable of shifting its entire center of gravity.

That’s not to say that City can’t get physical: No team prevails against Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid in the Champions League if they are averse to a skirmish. But with Haaland in the mix, they can take this aspect of their play to a different level. A trio of Rodri, Rúben Dias, and Haaland will be a formidable threat at any attacking set piece. Furthermore, Haaland is part of a small number of center forwards—which includes, on current form, Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, and Dusan Vlahovic—who can occupy an entire defense’s attention by himself.

Haaland’s presence carries a warning, though. Just as the Norwegian can shift gravity, Pep Guardiola must be careful not to drag Manchester City away from its ethos of collaborative attacking play. As we have seen with Lewandowski at Bayern and Benzema at Madrid, elite squads filled with attacking stars have still somehow become worryingly over-dependent on their central strikers. And how could they not? Of late, Lewandowski has broken one of the Bundesliga’s oldest scoring records, while Benzema has achieved rarely seen feats in the UEFA Champions League, and Haaland has averaged over a goal a game in two and half seasons in Germany. It is just as well that both Lewandowski and Benzema are so durable since a significant injury to either of them has recently threatened to end their teams’ championship hopes. Haaland is not so fortunate—if there is anything that stands between him and an all-conquering time at City, it is injury. Last season, he missed 16 games and 95 days of training with various ailments, statistics which will have attracted the scrutiny of City’s medical staff. Such are City’s resources, though, that Haaland can be protected so that he is available for the most important matches of the season—that is to say, for the closing stages of Europe’s premier club competition. Not since Neymar went to Paris Saint-Germain has a footballer been signed with such a singular sense of purpose. City, thanks to Guardiola’s remarkable coaching, are good enough to win the Premier League without a prolific center forward, but so far the Champions League title has eluded them. The challenge for City is to do something that they have not yet managed in this tournament: They must stop losing games in which they are the superior team. Too often City overwhelm their opponents with passing and chances, only to lose: They are like the supervillain who spends an age explaining their cunning plan for world domination, only to be sucker-punched by their adversary at the last minute.

Haaland is a different proposition entirely. He is Manchester City’s chaos agent, the character who has the capacity to strike decisively before the devious scheme is fully formed. His new team now has a man without preamble, a protagonist who shoots top-corner first and asks questions later. Since their greatest European heartbreaks have come in the last minutes of close games, Haaland is there to ensure that there are no such twists in the tale. It is ironic, and maybe it is fitting, that the addition of a new and unpredictable element to their squad promises to bring an end to City’s most uncomfortable drama.

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