For a manager who has spent the best part of a decade and a half operating at the pinnacle of European football, Pep Guardiola has rarely had to incorporate a new centre forward into his famously intricate tactical set-up. The thing is, if you can count on the extraordinary talents of either Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero for years at a time, you do not really need anyone else.
On the few occasions that Guardiola has had the opportunity to change the focal point of his attack, he has often shunted them out wide. David Villa arrived as a striker but played on the wing. Gabriel Jesus’s career has followed the same trajectory, albeit over a longer timescale. When it comes to out-and-out No 9s, Guardiola has had varying degrees of success. For every Robert Lewandowski, there is a Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic is the best known case of a more traditional centre forward malfunctioning in a Guardiola system. Their year together at Barcelona was not an outright failure, bringing a La Liga title, but its greatest contribution to posterity was the reams of quotable material it produced for Ibrahimovic’s autobiography, in which he is not exactly complimentary of his former manager or how he used him.
One of the more famous excerpts relates to Ibrahimovic’s belief that signing him is like buying a sports car. “If you drive a Ferrari, you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas,” he wrote. “Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside. He should have bought a Fiat.” All of which begs an obvious question: is Erling Haaland a Fiat or is he a Ferrari?
Either way, he is a Manchester City player. Guardiola’s long search for an Aguero replacement has finally come to an end and City believe that they have snared a generational superstar, in a €60m (£51m) deal that could go down as one of the best in the Premier League’s history. Haaland’s record of 85 goals in 88 games at Dortmund suggests that much, and there is every reason to believe he will only get better.
There is, however, a school of thought that says Haaland may take time to reach those extraordinary scoring heights at City. This is in part due to the so-called “Bundesliga tax”: the phenomenon whereby several imports from Germany’s top-flight have taken time to find their feet upon arrival in the Premier League. Jadon Sancho, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz all provide recent high-profile examples.
All three of those players saw their goal and assist output drop sharply from their Bundesliga peaks, in line with league to league studies which suggest the Premier League is a significant step-up in quality. One such study, conducted by analyst Tony ElHabr, estimated that the average player transferring from the German top-flight to the English equivalent can expect to see as much as a 17 per cent decrease in output.
It is a theory that Gareth Southgate, of all people, subscribes to. “You’re not going to get the goals and assists numbers anywhere near in our league that you are in the Bundesliga,” he said when discussing Sancho’s form earlier this season. “There are some very good teams but also it’s a good league for young players to develop in because there are some teams that aren’t at that level.”
One reason given for this phenomenon is that the Bundesliga’s style of play stands apart from any other major league in Europe. It is more vertical, direct and transition-based, with attacks moving the ball moving quickly up the pitch and defences pressing more intensely to win it back. The average speed of an attack in the Premier League this season is 1.46 metres per second. In the Bundesliga, it is 1.66.
This is the landscape in which Haaland has thrived, mastering the art of breaking into space. Often, it is not his substantial pace which defences struggle to cope with but his movement. On a typical Dortmund counterattack, Haaland will run one way and once the defender is overcommitted, shift to the other, accelerating through the gaps left behind. It is hardly revolutionary play but, combined with his preternatural strength, speed and agility, it is devastating.
Can this be replicated as often in a slower league? More specifically, in Haaland’s case, can it be replicated in a slower team? Dortmund’s attacks are in fact the slowest of all in the Bundesliga this season – moving at a meagre 1.46 metres-per-second, right in line with the Premier League average. That is nothing like as slow as City, though, who are the slowest in the top flight, moving the ball forward at just 1.08 metres per second. That is less Ferrari pace, more Fiat.
Haaland is not a Ferrari, though. He is not a Fiat either. He is a hybrid engine, a 21st century machine built for all terrain. It would not be entirely surprising if there is a slight decline in his output or some early teething problems, given his age and the need to adapt. But in Haaland, City have signed a player who looks fully capable of scoring both in transition and against the set defences that Guardiola’s side more typically come up against each weekend.
Despite his image as an explosive player who is devastating with space to break into, Haaland’s greatest skill is putting himself in the position to score excellent chances at close range. He has the intelligence and off-ball movement of a classic penalty box poacher, something City have arguably lacked since 2018, through Aguero’s gradual decline and eventual departure. Haaland is his natural successor. As previously analysed in these pages, he specialises in the goal City have trademarked.
Around a quarter of Haaland’s 61 Bundesliga goals for Dortmund have come inside the six-yard box but his conversion rate is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all. His 15 goals at that range over two-and-a-half Bundesliga seasons have come from just 21 shots. Essentially, if you give him a chance to shoot that close to your goal, cross your fingers. The odds are not in your favour.
His shot map over the course of his two-and-a-half seasons in the Bundesliga reveals the perfect blend for any striker: a lot of attempts on goal, judiciously taken. Many come from his favoured inside-left channel, shooting across the goalkeeper with his natural left foot, but it is that cluster bang in the middle of the six-yard box, right between the width of the posts, that stands out as the mark of true marksman.
You can try to drop your backline, lower your block or park a bus – and that will probably be what many Premier League defences do in an attempt to contain him – but the off-the-ball movement that reduces defences to a rabble 25 yards out from goal has often done the same inside the penalty area, with little shifts in movement and balance enough to create openings that are invariably converted.
Haaland, understandably, is not yet the complete centre forward package. His link-up play is not at the level of, say, Harry Kane. Rather than dropping deep to combine with the midfield, the Norwegian more often holds the ball up in the manner of a more traditional centre forward, using his strength to hold off defenders and play others in. That does not mean he is not creative, though.
Haaland has eight league assists this season – the same number as Kane, pre-Bundesliga tax deduction – and his expected assists per 90 minutes is actually marginally higher than City’s previous number one striker target. At the Etihad, they believe that by winning the race for Haaland, they have justified their decision not to spend just short of three times that much on Kane last summer.
Kane would certainly have been a different profile of striker for Guardiola to build his attack around. There would be no questions over adaptation to a new league or living in a different country. His development into a striker capable of dropping off and playmaking would appear to suit the post-peak Aguero City we have come to know. Incorporating Haaland into the current set-up poses a few different challenges.
And yet look at Haaland, his record at Dortmund, his power running in behind, his movement inside the penalty area, the variety of ways in which he can beat you and the defender next to you, and then consider the terrifying fact that he is still only 21-years-old, signing a five-year contract. It is hard not to conclude that this could be an earth shifting, era-defining signing. Whether Haaland is Ferrari, Fiat or neither, the rest of the Premier League could soon be a speck in City’s rearview mirror.