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Erling Haaland to Man City: how does it go?
The upsides, the risks, and the reality
So, barring any very last-minute shock change of heart, Erling Haaland will be a Manchester City player next season. It’s not exactly a surprise. We all thought this would be the destination for a little while now and it makes perfect sense. City didn’t get Harry Kane through the door last summer, and the most widespread criticism this season has been a lack of a genuine striker. So they’re signing the best young out-and-out centre forward on the market.
But what can we expect out of this move? Let’s look at the realistic best and worst-case scenarios, then try to figure out the likeliest outcome between those poles.
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Quite simply, he becomes one of the best ever to play football.
Haaland has suffered some injuries over the past 18 months, but let’s assume those clear up and he plays over 3000 minutes in the league next season. He’s averaged about 0.85 expected goals per 90 over the past two years, so let’s say he does that again. He’s also been beating his xG by 30%, and let’s assume that’s purely his own sustainable finishing quality. City average 8-9 penalties a season, so let’s say he takes them all and scores 8.1
That would give us about 38 goals next season. In the league.
The record for a 38-game Premier League season is 32.
That’s in his first season at age 22. From there, you can expect him to put up goalscoring numbers like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, breaking the 40-goal barrier multiple times. He can add more and more to his link-up play as well, with Pep Guardiola inevitably pushing him to improve that part of his game. Some have questioned his suitability for a Guardiola team. It’s possible this actually makes him adapt and become an even more complete striker. This season, Haaland has been touching the ball outside the box about 27 times per 90. None of City’s regular attackers this season touch it outside the box fewer than 40 times per 90. What if Haaland added that to his game? What if he became all the things Guardiola wants from a forward while still scoring 40 a year? What then?
Guardiola wouldn’t be signing him if he didn’t think Haaland could improve that side of his game.
All that and Man City really will be unstoppable. This is a “franchise player” for a club that’s already the best in the country. People like to joke about how Guardiola hasn’t won the Champions League without Messi, but if Haaland keeps improving, he’ll be the best player to work with the Catalan since Messi. And if that all clicks, the sky’s the limit. Pep could finally build another team on the level of his Barcelona side, with the trophy haul to match.
As far as I can tell, there are essentially four potential risks to this deal
Finishing over xG
Now let’s explore how they might all go wrong.
Haaland has been maxing out in terms of what the human body can do on the football pitch. In terms of pace, power and athleticism, no one else can get to his level. It’s hard to keep doing that without picking up some knocks along the way. This season he’s featured in 61% of available Bundesliga minutes, and let’s say the same thing happens again at Man City next season. Timo Werner has seen about a 35% cut in his xG and xA since moving to England, so let’s say the same happens to Haaland. And let’s say that his excellent finishing was simply about fortune, and he now reverts to scoring at about the rate of his xG. And, just for fun, let’s assume Riyad Mahrez continues to take the penalties.
That would give us about 14-15 goals in the Premier League. This is hardly a terrible total, but it would have to be seen as a disappointment.
Things would get worse from there down the road. What if Haaland is never able to adjust his game to the demands of Guardiola’s style. If he can’t become the complete forward the manager wants, will he really retain his starting spot forever? Would he become to Man City what Romelu Lukaku has been to Chelsea, getting in the way of a more fluid and complete style of play?
And those injuries: if he keeps picking up little problems here and there, can he maintain his incredible athleticism when he is fit? Or will he lose a little in terms of speed or strength? It’s not impossible that his body just can’t maintain those levels.
Over the course of five years, in this scenario, you can imagine the fitness problems getting worse and worse while he never fixes the flaws in his game. In that situation, City probably sign a different striker in 2-3 years and just gradually sideline Haaland, making him little more than a footnote and missed opportunity.
What actually happens, then?
Again, let’s break down those four risks with a more realistic hat on.
Fitness: “A series of muscular injuries is unfortunate”, according to Dr. Rajpal Brar, doctor of physical therapy, “but it doesn’t mean Haaland is injury prone”. In Dr. Brar’s opinion, there is concern that frequent injuries could “lead to a vicious cycle of injury and re-injury, because now your fitness levels are fluctuating and you’re having to ramp up back to match intensity”. The good news is that Haaland isn’t going to the World Cup in November, so he’s not going to be massively overworked next season. The concerns are still there, but I’d be more worried if Norway had qualified for Qatar.
“Bundesliga tax”: Yes, there is a degree to which it seems to matter. I don’t think the Bundesliga is as strong as it was three years ago, let alone ten. The good news is he’s been a performer in the Champions League, so it’s not as though he’s never done it against reasonable opposition. And his numbers are so big that even a medium drop off would still be excellent.
Finishing over xG: In all of the games he’s played that FBRef has advanced data for, Haaland has taken 254 shots. That is not a trivial sample size. Those shots have been worth 54.4 xG, from which he has scored 74 non-penalty goals. That’s an overperformance of 36%, which would be astonishing for him to maintain. By comparison, Lionel Messi is at 34%. Someone like Harry Kane, who I would regard as an outstanding finisher, is only at 18%. So to maintain Messi-level numbers would be a huge ask for someone not primarily known for finesse. I do think we can say he’s probably an above-average finisher, but I’d be sceptical that he’ll be in the Messi stratosphere over the long term in a harder league.
Tactical fit: My gut instinct is to simply trust Pep on this. City’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano have complete faith in Guardiola. If the manager had any doubts about tactical fit, City would not be signing Haaland. At some clubs it can be construed that the manager might not really want a certain player, but not at Man City. I’m sure Guardiola has given this a lot of thought and has a clear plan of how to use Haaland. If this is happening, you can bet the tactical fit will be fine.
There are a lot of ways you can take the air out of Haaland’s numbers but, in the end, they’re so big that you’re still left with a lot. There’s a chance they have a true one-off superstar here, but even if not they’re still left with merely a top striker. The odds are really good of this move working out wonderfully for player and club. There are risks, but that’s life. Risk is unavoidable. If I were running Man City, I’d have made this deal in a heartbeat.