The concerning Erling Haaland trend Man City can no longer ignore

Haaland has nothing to prove as Manchester City face Luton this weekend, but the striker has dominated relatively few of the major matches this season and Pep Guardiola has a problem to solve ahead of the return of Real Madrid

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Saturday 13 April 2024 08:26 BST
Guardiola proud of Man City's Bernabeu performance after exhilarating Real Madrid draw

In a game of six goals, Erling Haaland’s most notable contribution was defensive. Haring back with the air of a man possessed, he dispossessed Vinicius Junior. And to think there was a theory Manchester City needed Kyle Walker fit to race with Real Madrid’s resident roadrunner. Perhaps they simply should have played Haaland at right-back. Or maybe, in a world where John Stones gets an assist at the Bernabeu with a pass on the edge of Real’s box, the future for the Norwegian lies inside his own penalty area.

Facetiousness aside, Haaland’s evening in the Spanish capital did not amount to a case for why, after Kylian Mbappe, Real should choose to make him their next Galactico. He can flourish inside the confines of the 18-yard box, but City scored three times from longer range. They scored great goals while a great goalscorer got none. There were times when, in a team reconfigured to suit him, his teammates should have passed. He had one of the game’s 26 shots, and Andriy Lunin saved it.

A fixture list with a difference means Real Madrid are followed by Luton, two clubs rarely bracketed together. It is an immediate reminder of Haaland’s extraordinary appetite for goals. When they last met, a mere six weeks ago, he scored five times. That the previous player to score five or more in an FA Cup game for a top-flight team was George Best shows it was another historic achievement for the forward who, last season, became the first to chalk up a half-century of goals in a campaign for a club in the old Division 1 or its successor, the Premier League, since 1931.

The striker scored five at Luton, who City host in the Premier League this weekend (Getty)

He is on 30 now, with almost two months to go, with two months spent on the sideline, and could finish as the leading scorer in both the Premier League and the Champions League: but for that injury, 50 may have felt possible again. And yet if a 30-goal season, spanning a mere 37 games, can feel underwhelming, it may be in the context of Haaland’s freakish achievements last season. The great Sergio Aguero, after all, never got past 33 in a campaign for City.

But Haaland’s sophomore season has been marred a little by the defining games. All goalscorers strike in fits and spurts and his fondness for hat-tricks means he can capitalise on the days when the conditions are favourable. The elite opponents, by their very nature, are harder to score against. It is only reasonable to expect a lesser goal-per-game ratio on such stages.

Yet Haaland’s return against the Premier League’s top four and Real – arguably the five best sides he has faced this season – stands at one goal in eight games. It leaves him with 29 in 29 against everyone else. And if, like all statistics, there is context – three of those eight matches were against Arsenal and William Saliba, followed by Antonio Rudiger – there is also the familiar question of where to draw the line. Expand it to the Premier League’s top six and Haaland has three goals in two outings against Manchester United. He has one in two against RB Leipzig, the second-best team City have encountered in the Champions League; one in two in the European knockout tie against FC Copenhagen. But he failed to find the net in the European Super Cup against Sevilla.

Apart from a few defensive bursts, Haaland had little impact on City’s big Champions League fixture (Getty)

The broader trend, though, is that Haaland has dominated relatively few of the major matches; the nature of the season means more beckon in April and May; potentially June, too. That lone goal, by the way, came against Liverpool in November. But he had a lone shot in their March draw, while he did not attempt any against Arsenal at the Emirates. Include his night at the Bernabeu and it amounts to two efforts on goal in the three major away games.

That City’s fixture list features a reunion with Real, perhaps a Champions League semi-final with either Bayern Munich or Arsenal, his new nemesis, becomes an examination of his record on the major stages. City have been so successful that, brief as his time at the Etihad Stadium is, it has been littered with finals. He is yet to score in any of the five. He did not score in the Champions League or FA Cup semi-finals last season, though the asterisk to attach is because the latter was against Sheffield United. He is entitled to argue that goals home and away, and hugely dominant performances, against Arsenal in his debut campaign played a sizeable role in winning the title.

Now City’s Premier League schedule features some of Haaland’s many favourite opponents: Luton, Nottingham Forest, Wolves, Fulham, West Ham. He has nothing to prove on such occasions, potentially plenty of goals to gain. But against the best? Erling Haaland, the byword for goals, could do with a goal or two.

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