EPL TALK: Man City lucky to have one flawless gem in Haaland
He comes with plenty of goals but none of the baggage that often comes with top strikers
HE LET his hair down and let us peek into his world. And there was only joy. We glimpsed behind the curtain and discovered not a Norse god, but a funny-looking fella in a shampoo commercial. Erling Haaland showed us who he really was: the one without an asterisk.
Beyond the goals, the records and the relentless addiction to smacking a ball past enfeebled men, Haaland comes without caveats at a club practically drowning in them. He doesn’t just clean up at the Etihad. He cleans the Etihad. He’s purity with a ponytail, a flawless gem working for employers still seeking to iron out their perceived flaws in the court of public opinion (a court of law may come later).
Manchester City are lucky to have him, but not for mere football reasons, because the Manchester City project doesn’t exist for mere football reasons. That part is easy to analyse. Pep Guardiola played Transformers with his own squad, banging away at different parts until a Rolls-Royce became a Ferrari and given simple objectives: Move fast. Feed the beast. Improve in Europe.
The metamorphosis took a while. Guardiola was essentially swapping his sexy blurred lines with Graham Taylor’s lumped balls forward. Older readers may still remember Taylor’s legendary England documentary and the immortal close-up of him screaming at the Three Lions to “HIT LES!”
Guardiola doesn’t have Les Ferdinand, but we still live in hope of a camera catching him berating his midfielders and ordering them to “HIT ERLING!”
He doesn’t really need to. Guardiola’s reconfigured dandies are already pinging balls towards that left foot, endlessly and remorselessly. This is goal plundering on an industrial scale. Haaland broke the English Premier League record against West Ham United with his 35th goal of the campaign. Kevin de Bruyne laid on eight of them. Jack Grealish chipped in with four. Riyad Mahrez provided three, Phil Foden two and seven others had an assist apiece. All moving parts are now recalibrated to serve the Norwegian machine.
Now just imagine, for a moment, how such a dedicated, personal service might have turned Haaland into a nauseating brat; a hands-waving, eye-rolling, tunnel-stomping diva to rival Mariah Carey’s demands before a gig, insisting on certain kinds of passes like he was choosing M&Ms. Picture Cristiano Ronaldo in Haaland’s enormous boots. The Norwegian has been given what Ronaldo coveted at Manchester United (and elsewhere); a private team of butlers. They exist to please the individual.
Likeability could have become a problem for Haaland, along with ego, mental fragility and blood-curdling fear.
That’s the bit often overlooked in the striker’s rapid success. The manager, players and coaching staff of the world’s wealthiest football club retooled themselves and effectively handed their collective product over to a giggling 22-year-old with funny hair. There you go, son. Take this multi-billion-dollar product with our compliments. Try not to break it.
Not everyone can be like Haaland
And he didn’t. Remarkably, he didn’t choke. He gorged. Haaland continues to operate as if holding a PlayStation controller. He can bend the environment to his will, sure, but it’s all a laugh really, gliding past these tiny, 2D defenders, shifting the ball to the reliable left foot, giving the keeper the eyes, finding the corner. It’s so easy. Why doesn’t everyone else do it?
Because they can’t. Look at poor Darwin Nunez. Similar age. Similar size (almost). Similar responsibilities (almost). He makes the same runs for Liverpool and waits for the same pass. Sometimes the ball arrives. Sometimes it doesn’t. The process is just a fraction slower. Haaland spots gaps faster than Nunez. He sizes up angles and distances quicker. These differences are measured in inches, but their careers are miles apart.
Haaland has earned the right to a whopping ego and an occasional, petulant outburst, but they never came. The genuine Haaland popped up when his hair flopped down against Arsenal. In the game’s dying moments, he removed the hairband as he anticipated the final whistle. Presumably, he didn’t expect to score, which seemed a tad naïve. But he did. And the world fell for him all over again.
Haaland reminded us what a curious creation he really is, the surreal offspring of the Terminator and a Labrador puppy. He kills, but with a tongue-flapping smile. He moves through penalty boxes like a Viking invasion and then celebrates like Pamela Anderson running along a beach in the 1990s. There’s an endearing innocence about his character that’s priceless to his employers.
The question marks surrounding the unstoppable advance of the Etihad industrial complex will not end any time soon and Haaland is undoubtedly a key part of the process – he didn’t come cheap - but he somehow floats above the fray. His boyish giddiness is perhaps matched only by Jack Grealish, but even Grealish finds himself saddled, unfairly, with the price tag asterisk. He’s often held up as a poster boy for all that’s abhorrent about City’s financial dominance: the £100 million bit-part player (at least until recently).
But Haaland comes with nothing but goals. Headers, tap-ins, guided finishes and penalties are a way of life. The only way. He’s taken the fundamentals of the school playground to the most expensive production in the EPL without compromising his popularity.
Where are the character flaws? The ugliness required for an unforgiving game? Alan Shearer had his elbows. Wayne Rooney had a temper and Ronaldo had a mirror. The best usually bring baggage. Not Haaland though. He just brings his boots, scores and goes home. And he doesn’t stop smiling. It’s a wonder he doesn’t skip to the Etihad.
Manchester City assumed they were signing the missing link between routine domestic control and a Champions League breakthrough, but they could not have anticipated the global appeal of his soft power. Haaland is the cleanest tool in their PR box. He transcends the grubbiness associated with City’s financial dealings to reach a kind of purity beyond his workplace.
It’s still hard to watch the EPL turn into a monopoly. Thankfully, it’s still easy to watch Haaland.
Haaland is the cleanest tool in (Man City's) PR box. He transcends the grubbiness associated with City’s financial dealings to reach a kind of purity beyond his workplace.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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