big battle | 

How keeping away from Man City’s Erling Haaland is the best way to keep him quiet

Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez will try to shackle Manchester City’s star striker but the key to derby success might be keeping his distance

Manchester City’s Erling Haaland scores an acrobatic goal during the Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund at the Etihad Stadium. Photo: Reuters


The best advice Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag can offer Lisandro Martinez about dealing with Erling Haaland is to keep away from him.

Some battles can be won by out-muscling or outplaying an opponent. Other players need out-thinking. Martinez must be at his smartest to get the better of his Manchester City rival this weekend.

This is a tip which goes back to my schoolboy days when my coach at the FA’s School of Excellence in Lilleshall, Keith Blunt, told me to “stop fighting people who are bigger than you”.

Back then I was a 14-year-old centre-forward with a tendency to get involved in physical contests no matter how winnable. As a late developer I initially lacked the physical attributes which came to the fore later, although the principles remained whenever facing bigger and stronger opponents.

You cannot completely keep away from your direct opponent, of course, but with experience comes the knowledge that you need to pick your battles and identify the areas in which to duel.

It is a psychological as much as a physical test in the biggest fixtures against the best players, recognising what you are up against and trying to work out what the opponent wants you to do most, and what they enjoy least.

That is the challenge for Martinez, Raphael Varane or anyone facing Haaland.

There is a lot to like about Martinez’s first appearances in a United shirt. The fans have taken to him as a cult figure because he is a warrior and natural leader.

United’s defence has impressed since the calamitous performance against Brentford and Martinez has been central to that. Since he was paired with Varane, they have kept three clean sheets in five games. But, long-term, the reservations I had when first seeing Martinez remain.

He looks a little too short to play centre-back in the Premier League. We saw when United struggled badly against Brentford – a game where Martinez was subbed at half-time – how difficult it is for him if sides hit long balls into the penalty area to a striker relishing such service like Ivan Toney. There is nothing you can do about a height disadvantage when forced into continuous aerial challenges.

It is well known that some of the greatest centre-backs of all time, including Italy’s Franco Baresi, Argentina’s Daniel Passarella and England’s Bobby Moore, were less than 6ft, proving size is no barrier to being a world-class centre-half.

The difference is they were pretty much 10 out of 10 in every other department, compensating for the one weakness they could do nothing about. It is premature to suggest Martinez will be so flawless in every other facet of his game.

In fact, the most visible asset in his first United appearances – his desire to engage by continuously hunting down and tackling his opponents – is what he may need to curb most this weekend. Haaland will be waiting for him to dive into challenges knowing one mistake can be fatal.

Haaland may have been kept quiet by Martinez in Ajax’s Champions League game against Borussia Dortmund last season (the Dutch won 4-0), but the Norwegian is currently the best striker in the world. He can hurt a side in many ways, but he has the profile of an old-fashioned No 9.

So if I was in Martinez’s boots, the approach would be similar to mine when coming up against the world-class target man of my era, Didier Drogba.

Through the epic meetings between Liverpool and Chelsea there was nothing Drogba wanted more than to receive the ball with a defender tight at his back so he could use his strength, touch and pace to spin and get away from you.

He wanted to sense the breath of his marker on his shoulder. If you got too close it made his mind up what he was going to do whenever the ball was played into his feet.

Hence, the idea when higher up the pitch was to keep away from him as much as could be reasonably allowed and give him more to think about when he received possession.

It might be just an extra yard or two, especially near the halfway line, so if he received the ball with his back to goal and turned – you would be facing him and have the time to make a challenge, or at least give him a choice to make as to whether to try to get past you or lay off a pass. That split second could be the difference between Drogba dashing away or an attack being halted.

Sometimes you were helpless to stop Drogba from doing what he did, especially near the penalty area, where you had to get closer because you could not afford to give him any space to get a shot away.

He scored a stunning goal against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in 2006 when he received the ball on his chest with his back to goal, used his strength to back into me and knock me off balance, and then created a yard of space to turn and unleash an unstoppable volley. You just have to acknowledge the talent in those situations.

Elsewhere on the pitch, you would want to drag him into areas where he was less comfortable, or from where it would be more difficult to score or create. Preferably, you would do this by trying to show him the way out wide. If Drogba was trying to beat you on the outside to put a cross in, to some extent it was job done.

Inside and around the penalty area it is a different challenge but less of an individual one. Obviously you would want maximum concentration to prevent avoidable mistakes like losing your man in and around the penalty area, but you cannot put the onus on one defender to stop a striker scoring.

Varane will be as responsible as Martinez in trying to keep Haaland quiet and it is the team’s responsibility to limit the supply line, whether it is full-backs or wide midfielders stopping crosses or central midfielders getting closer to playmakers.

Ten Hag will not be looking solely at Martinez or his defenders to limit Haaland’s effectiveness. His midfielders and attackers must work overtime to deny the likes of Kevin De Bruyne space. Like Drogba, Haaland is one of those strikers who can produce extraordinary moments out of nothing. That’s why such players are so expensive.

Centre-halves at elite clubs have a different challenge today because their coaches want them to play such a high line. Dropping off a few yards when necessary, as I or John Terry liked to do, is not encouraged as much.

But the basic idea remains the same. The most you can do as a centre-back is to make it as difficult as possible for a striker to do what he wants. Naturally, that is easier said than done against a world-class talent.

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