Erling Haaland can continue the evolution of Man City’s unexpected new identity – Alex Brotherton
Ask any football fan to describe Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and the same words and phrases will likely come up: possession, intricate passing, positional play, attractive, goals and maybe even the dreaded ‘tiki-taka’.
The current incarnation of Pep’s City which just won a fourth Premier League title in five years is arguably the one closest aligned to Guardiola’s footballing principles. City are dominating possession more than ever before, pinning opponents in their own half by employing an extremely high defensive line.
This season City played with a fluid front-three, with the two number eights joining them to form a front five whenever City attacked. There was less speed and fewer counter-attacks than in 2017/18 and 2018/19, but more patience and domination.
Guardiola often deployed a false nine instead of a striker and had his full-backs tuck in to create a 2-3-5 formation when in possession. These are not new ploys for Guardiola, but his City team had never before done them all at once.
However, there was a trait that City developed over the course of the season seldom associated with Guardiola teams. City, on more than one occasion, became the pantomime villain. City dabbled in the ‘dark arts’ like never before.
The new character trait first became noticeable on New Year’s Day, when after scoring a last-minute and frankly undeserved winner away at Arsenal, Rodri celebrated by goading the home fans, shirtless knee-slide and all. He could have easily run to the travelling City fans in celebration, but instead, he chose chaos.
A few months later, after Atletico Madrid had tried their best to agitate City at the Etihad Stadium, the Blues gave the Spanish side a taste of their own medicine in the return leg. Cue lots of time-wasting in the final stages when City had their backs against the wall, Phil Foden rolling onto the pitch when injured (which sparked a mass brawl) and Jack Grealish telling Stefan Savic exactly what he thought of him.
There was even time for a bit of gamesmanship on the final day, once City had miraculously come back from two goals behind to lead Aston Villa 3-2. With the visitors by no means happy to just sit back and let City stroll to the title, Guardiola’s side spent the final 10 minutes shielding the ball in the corner, trying their best to win corners and throw-ins and generally wasting time.
It was exactly the right thing to do, of course, just something we aren’t necessarily used to City doing. It’s a new side to the champions and one that Erling Haaland will only add to. The 21-year-old, who City have agreed to sign from Borussia Dortmund for £51million, may well be the best young striker in the world – but that doesn’t mean he can’t be streetwise when he needs to be.
He showed that a few months ago when Dortmund faced Eintracht Frankfurt. After BVB has scored an 89th-minute goal to complete a come-from-behind 3-2 win, Haaland took great pleasure in shielding the ball in the corner. When he cannoned the ball off the defender to earn another corner, he let out a fierce roar, adding to the frustration of the home players.
After scoring against Sweden for Norway recently, he couldn’t resist celebrating his second goal by making a shushing gesture towards both the Swedish crowd and opposition defender Alexander Milosevic.
After the game, Haaland claimed that minutes before he scored, Milosevic had called him a wh***, and that he’d break his legs. The new City man certainly put the defender in his place.
Some may call it arrogance, but Haaland’s taste for winding up the opposition will fit right in at City. One criticism of the Blues used to be that they were too nice, and not street-smart enough. Not any more.