Erling Haaland to Manchester City: A square peg in a round hole?


Norwegian sensation Erling Haaland plays football like a steam-powered cyborg, with all of his pistons, gears and cogs precision engineered with prolific goal-scoring in mind.

The 21-year-old has a dynamic set of skills that are coveted by just about every continental heavyweight on the scene, though the latest reports suggest that mega-rich Manchester City have provisionally agreed terms on a £500k per week deal for Haaland – which would make him the highest-paid player in the Premier League.

A glance at Haaland’s career stats to date highlights why suitors have been lining up around the block to woo him. Since joining RB Salzburg from Molde in 2018, the Leeds-born line leader is averaging about a goal per game at club and international level.

In a landscape where outstanding apex predators are an endangered species, Haaland stands out as one of few players looking down from the peak of football’s food pyramid and the team that lands his signature will expect him to spearhead a decade of success.

However, Haaland’s potential move to Manchester City throws up some interesting questions about his profile, skill-set and how he might mesh with Pep Guardiola’s super-specific philosophy.

Already, there has been talk in some quarters of square pegs, round roles and ill-fitting trousers and a dig through Haaland’s underlying numbers throws up some interesting points of concern.

Haaland’s rough edges

It would almost seem silly to expect a footballer to have a full mastery of the game by the age of 21, though Haaland’s reputation is such, that if he doesn’t explode onto the scene at Manchester City with a glut of goals and match-winning performances, the pressure will start to crank.

While the Norwegian’s predatory instincts and ability to finish chances are already at an elite level, his contribution to other phases of play, first touch and close control in tight spaces can sometimes let him down and Haaland could find slotting into City’s slick-passing system a difficult task.

Erling Haaland to Manchester City: A square peg in a round hole?

The table above shows the pass completion rate figures posted by Erling Haaland for Dortmund in 2021/22 alongside the players he could be competing against in Manchester City’s frontline.

In the Cityzens’ possession-heavy system under Pep Guardiola, maintaining control of the ball is one of the primary objectives, though the numbers from the current campaign indicate that this is an area Haaland tends to struggle in.

Not one of City’s attackers has posted a pass completion rate of below 85% this term and Haaland’s 70.7% return looks alarmingly low in comparison.

Erling Haaland to Manchester City: A square peg in a round hole?

Above, we’ve listed the data for the number of times a player failed when attempting to gain control of the ball on average per 90 minutes, and again, Haaland ranks poorly when compared to the majority of his potential teammates at Manchester City.

In fact, the increasingly peripheral Gabriel Jesus – who could be sold this summer – is the only player to have fared worse than Haaland in the metric for 2021/22, with the Norwegian posting over twice as many miscontrols as Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish.

Haaland also fails to pass the eye test at times and he can look a little awkward when attempting to wriggle his way out of enclosed spaces against aggressive opponents.

Dortmund vs City – highly contrasting styles

Erling Haaland is the most devastating weapon in Dortmund’s armoury, though the German giants’ style of play – which features buckets of direct passing and rapid transitions – is at odds with Manchester City’s more technical, considered approach.

Haaland’s combination of blinding pace and physical strength allows him to thrive in Marco Rose’s counter-punching set-up, where chaos is embraced and rapid line-breaking runs are the order of the day.

Spend a few minutes spent watching goal compilations featuring Haaland and you can’t help but notice how many of his goals involve vertical runs during a swift counter, where defensive lines are retreating from high positions.

When Haaland can stretch his legs and make a beeline for goal, he is almost unstoppable, but it also begs the question – how often will he get to play to those strengths at Manchester City?

The Cityzens are averaging just under 70% possession in the Premier League this season and one of the most commons sights in English football is Pep Guardiola’s side weaving intricate passing patterns against teams pinned back, deep inside their own penalty area.

In these scenarios, City’s technically gifted and supremely talented forwards exploit inches to their advantage and adapting to a more stationary style of play could be a bit of a culture shock for Erling Haaland, who prefers to be more explosive instead of studious.

With a lot less space to run into at City, Haaland might not be able to use the powerful skill set that has shot him to prominence and if it becomes a question of remoulding his game to suit the Cityzens, then you’d have to wonder whether the Premier League giants would be better served signing a more suitable cog for their machine.

Manchester City, Pep Guardiola

Bundesliga to the Premier League – a tough step up

Premier League clubs have long viewed the Bundesliga as a fertile hunting ground for new recruits, however, in recent seasons at least, the German league’s best and brightest prospects have found it difficult to emulate their performances in England.

Since 2019, players like Leon Bailly, Jean-Philippe Mateta, Wout Weghorst, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Thiago and Haaland’s former Dortmund teammate Jadon Sancho have all arrived in the Premier League from the Bundesliga with glowing reputations and hefty price tags, though for varying reasons, few have lived up to their billing.

Like Haaland is doing now, Jadon Sancho was posting incredible numbers in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund before joining crisis club Manchester United for close to £80m last year. However, since his arrival at Old Trafford, Sancho star has waned considerably and though his shabby displays can be attributed in part to his new club’s overall demise, the English winger has still look alarmingly off the pace.

Haaland will of course, be determined to buck that worrisome Bundesliga trend, though the gap in quality between leagues coupled with the mismatch between his and Manchester City’s style of play creates a shadow of doubt big enough to question the Cityzens’ pursuit of the Norwegian’s signature.