Save for an occasional appearance by Sergio Aguero in 2020/21, Manchester City have managed to win back-to-back Premier League titles, averaging 89.5 points-per-season, all without possessing a recognized centre-forward.
It has been a quite remarkable feat of footballing engineering that has circumnavigated a fundamental – and long-held – requirement for specialist fire-power, one that has been achieved by mirroring Pep Guardiola’s ‘false nine’ conception at Barcelona, that had Lionel Messi principally positioned up top but barely inhabiting the penalty area. In its second incarnation at the Etihad, it has meant Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, and others essentially taking it in turns to fulfil the central role; dropping deep and perplexing centre-backs and all while a litany of attacking talent share out the goal-scoring chores.
In years to come, precisely how City dominated the English landscape minus a traditionally key component to any successful team will be dissected in print and eulogised but presently, for whatever reason, it is not.
That though is by the by because this summer Man City have gone out and secured the immensely promising Julian Alvarez from River Plate, a player who is already being compared to Aguero, and then followed that up by ending months of speculation in signing Erling Haaland, meeting Borussia Dortmund’s release fee of £51m.
Or, to put another way, having grown tired of going into battle without a deadly sniper, a team that has won four of the last five Premier League titles have now purchased the best young striker in South America and the best young striker in Europe.
To what extent these are ominous developments for the rest of the top-flight remains to be seen but certainly the capture of Haaland has had many a rival fan hold aloft a white flag since last Monday’s official announcement and that’s several weeks before a ball has been kicked in anger. Still just 21 years of age, the Norwegian phenomenon has already smashed numerous, long-standing goal-scoring records since emerging fully-formed and formidable as a kid with Molde, most notably accumulating the best minutes per goal ratio in the history of the Bundesliga on joining Dortmund in 2020. A return of a goal every 87 minutes across two campaigns puts him ahead of Robert Lewandowski. It puts him ahead of the much-feared and lethal Gerd Muller. It puts him ahead of everyone.
Posting a bit too much today, but this is how excited I am 🙃 pic.twitter.com/AJhnFiGbLh
— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) June 13, 2022
This astonishing prolificacy has been replicated in the Champions League too with a career-tally of 20 reached at home to Sevilla in March of last year. No other player has made this milestone at a younger age and in fewer games, just 14. Not Messi. Not Raul or Ronaldo. Not anyone.
All told, this monstrous talent has scored 135 goals in 182 professional appearances and if that’s not concerning enough for Liverpool et al, his strike-rate is only sharpening season on season.
So naturally, there is a sense among rival fan-bases that all hope is lost, when hope was slender to begin with. An all-conquering prize fighter now has a horseshoe in their glove.
From a City perspective meanwhile, Haaland represents arguably the most exciting signing in their post-takeover era, trumping even the recruitment of Aguero in 2011, a superstar bought to take them to the next level. For all that it’s been a blast seeing their team win major honours without a forward in their line-up there has also been countless occasions when a ball has scuttled across the opposition box with nobody to tap home, or a floated delivery has come in to little affect, with Gundogan or Sterling easily out-muscled in the air. It’s an odd truth but a truth nonetheless that a side who scored 99 times in the league last term could have bagged a whole lot more.
Haaland will score these chances and furthermore, create plenty too with his propensity to physically bully defenders, thus creating greater space for De Bruyne and co to exploit. Indeed, the prospect of the artful Belgian finally having a target-man – and especially a target-man as elite as the 6ft 5 giant – to play off and cater to, is very possibly the most frightening aspect for others to contemplate.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps we return to those plethora of missed opportunities that we have witnessed in recent seasons from the Blues, ones that very rarely mattered because City usually found a way but on occasions mattered a great deal, most pertinently when failing to progress past Real Madrid in the Champions League last term despite racking up 31 attempts over both legs. And recognising this, perhaps we highlight a passing comment made by City’s new megastar-in-the-making on being unveiled.
The club’s interviewer was enquiring about Haaland’s appreciation of City’s football and it was all standard practise until he approached the subject from another angle.
“When you watched City last season,” the interviewer asked, “did you imagine yourself playing and put yourself in scoring positions?”
“Yes, I did that,” came the reply from the forward, a response accompanied by a broad grin as he recalled those scuttled crosses to no-one. “And it’s going to be good.”