The majority of managers who had won four league championships in five years would choose consistency during the summer, or at most a few small adjustments; a topping up of the talent pool to ensure they remained in charge of the domestic setup. Most managers do not include Pep Guardiola. He is an inventor who is both sincerely concerned about the direction the game is taking and restless, believing in his own ideas. It is undoubtedly both a blessing and a curse, and it has contributed to this summer being the most exciting one since he arrived in England.
Manchester City should be in a position of strength that is evident. With the best young striker in the world now theirs for the affordable sum of £64 million, they added him after winning the Premier League title with 94 points last season. The majority of onlookers view this as a straightforward equation that ensures future success, but there is cause to worry that Guardiola’s relentless pursuit of improvement will prove to have harmed the squad on this occasion. The tactical tenets that have supported Man City’s victories over the previous five years have, at the very least, undergone a significant change as a result of the signing of Erling Haaland.
The Community Shield was a foreshadowing of the troubles to come, notably a poor start that may give Liverpool an unassailable lead in the title battle. When Man City’s midfielders urged him to come short, Haaland seemed disoriented and separated from his teammates, making runs on the shoulder of the final defender. He just had 16 touches and made seven passes. He made Kevin de Bruyne throw his arms in the air twice in despair, asking why Haaland had rushed away from him at full speed.
Both Man City and Haaland will need to adjust in order to coexist. A player with transitional speed and verticality is now in charge of this team, which has been preoccupied with possession recycling and the methodical management of games. This is a team that has always desired a false nine, and the player is a penalty-box sniper. Success is not guaranteed in this case, at least not in the near run. Haaland’s movement may cause City moves to break down and become fragmented; additionally, he is perhaps an even poorer fit defensively.
When compared to all forwards in the top five leagues over the previous 365 days, Haaland is in the 27th percentile for pressures. He won’t press as a Guardiola player should, and Man City may have more difficulties without the counter-press as opponents may have time to gather themselves and launch a counterattack by choosing a long ball over the top of the high defensive line. It’s a problem that Guardiola’s most unexpected action this summer—allowing Raheem Sterling to join Chelsea—might make worse.
When it comes to defending, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish are far weaker than Sterling, recording pressure, tackling, and interception numbers that are significantly lower than the league average for a winger. The defending champions would face significant challenges if they combined with Haaland to form a forward line incapable of leading the press.
Of course, that is only one side of the tale. Guardiola loses the persistent buzzing energy and poacher’s instinct that Sterling brought to the left, but he most likely gains a new partnership as Grealish starts to appear more frequently in support of Haaland. If Grealish can regain his confidence, he can become one of the best players in the world, and when a striker like Haaland makes deft moves, Grealish’s sheer creativity from that side will increase. That City player was left without a center-forward last year did not help Grealish, who could have formed a remarkable alliance with Haaland.
It should be noted that Guardiola did not want to use a striker-less system last season, but did so out of necessity after his summer chase of Harry Kane proved futile. In fact, Guardiola may intentionally seek to rebalance his team’s attacking tactics and develop a more direct, straight-lined approach via Haaland. Last season, Man City were frequently hindered by deep-lying opponents like Crystal Palace and Southampton, but with Haaland’s runs, there will be possibilities to get in behind defensive teams before they can retreat into their shell.
There’s also the simpler equation, in which Haaland’s 86 goals in 89 games for Borussia Dortmund demonstrate that he will score ruthlessly when the ball falls to him in the box – which it will given Man City’s talent in all areas. Even a dismal showing in the Community Shield resulted in three decent chances. Nobody generates more than Manchester City, and no one attempts more crosses. Even if City’s build-up play is a little more chaotic, Haaland’s movement should lead to goals.
However, the situation is more perilous than most people realize. Man City may become more exposed, both on and off the ball, as Haaland and his teammates get to know one another. On Sunday, West Ham United will be quietly optimistic about starting off well.