Top-flight coaches are already trading tips on how best to play against Erling Haaland
Unfortunately for this emerging brains trust, the only manager to successfully stop the Manchester City striker from getting on the score sheet this season so far has already been sacked.
The rest of the Premier League has a problem and it’s not entirely clear how they are going to solve it.
It was reported in the wake of Erling Haaland’s evisceration of Crystal Palace at the weekend that top-flight coaches are already trading tips on how best to play against him. Unfortunately for this emerging brains trust, the only manager to successfully stop the Manchester City striker from getting on the score sheet this season so far has already been sacked.
There’s not much use asking David Moyes, Eddie Howe or Patrick Vieira, either. Despite their best efforts, they all failed to come up with an effective plan of action against the Norwegian, and you can now add Steve Cooper to that list.
It was put to the Nottingham Forest manager that Haaland is the only player to score nine goals in his first five Premier League games, and then he was asked if he had ever come across a centre-forward like him. “No, if that’s the case, what you just said” Cooper replied. “The facts state that.”
Cooper’s newly promoted butterflies were broken upon the wheel by three first-half goals that made up Haaland’s second hat-trick in consecutive halves of football. That’s six goals scored in the space of four days, and within less than an hour actually on the pitch. Whereas he was made to wait until the second half to score his first on Saturday, this time all three came in just 38 minutes.
Haaland’s start has been awesome, in both senses of the word: impressive to the point that, in City’s rivals, it should inspire a sort of mild terror.
There is some good news, though. Haaland is not unstoppable. On the contrary, in fact, as his own manager admitted in his post-match press conference on Wednesday night. And you wonder whether, rather than asking those who have already suffered at Haaland’s hands about how to stop him, it might be worth asking Pep Guardiola. He may already know better than anyone else.
“He is stoppable,” the City manager insisted, “when we don’t play good.”
In other words, if you stop City, you stop Haaland. The only problem there is that during Guardiola’s time in Manchester, stopping City has proved difficult enough.
Only one rival has come close with any kind of consistency and they have still finished behind the reigning Premier League champions in four of the past five seasons. Now, any pretender to their throne has to contend with the same dynamic, free-flowing attack and arguably the best centre-forward in world football as its focal point.
Even more ominously, any concern that City may take time to adapt to Haaland or vice versa has been swatted aside. Guardiola could not hide his delight with how the integration process has gone so far.
“What he has done in Norway, Austria and Germany, he tries to do here,” he said. “The first ball contact, he scores a goal. We knew it.” There was praise for Julian Alvarez too, whose brace took second billing in this 6-0 win, but with it coming on his first competitive start, it was no less impressive for it.
“Both have settled in a way I could not expect – especially Julian, from Argentina,” Guardiola said. “You see how he is doing. He struggled to find the pace in the first half. But the goals… when he is close to the goal? Oh my God. So precise, so good. They are both incredible finishers.”
It was a testament to Alvarez’s quality that City looked no less potent once he moved to centre-forward against Forest after Haaland’s eventual and expected substitution shortly after the hour mark.
“Always when the game is over to avoid niggles I take him off,” Guardiola said, and this need to rest and rotate Haaland from time to time will offer City’s opponents some respite.
If the injury problems that have slightly hampered his brilliant young career persist, then there will be prolonged periods every so often when Alvarez has to step up and fill the void. Perhaps that will be the time when City’s rivals can aim to gain or make up some ground.
Guardiola is still concerned that his side do not always control games enough, too. “There are two aspects to control: the set pieces and the transitions,” he said.
“If we can control these then we can control the game. We are so prolific, we score many goals in all the games. If we control these aspects, we concede few. We can’t survive conceding three goals every game. We need to avoid stupid fouls and avoid the transitions. You have to be careful. We have to be solid.”
Then again, think of the times when those problems have hurt City this season. At St James’ Park, Newcastle were having plenty of joy in transitions, enough to take a two-goal lead. Then Haaland scored a deceptively difficult finish to mount a comeback, which ultimately salvaged a decent point.
Against Palace at the weekend, the champions conceded from an own goal and a set-piece to go another two goals down. Then Haaland scored a hat-trick and they ran out 4-2 winners. Even when City are not playing well, he seems inevitable.
He isn’t, though. As Guardiola says, he is stoppable. Sometimes, anyway. Since leaving Molde at the start of 2019, there are only three clubs that Haaland has played twice and failed to score against. One of them is Manchester City. When it comes to stopping Haaland, it seems that’s currently for Guardiola to know and for the rest of the Premier League to find out.
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