FOOTBALL: THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

Published May 14, 2023
Haaland scores his side’s third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Leicester City at Etihad Sadium | AP photo
Haaland scores his side’s third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Leicester City at Etihad Sadium | AP photo

As the clock ticked to 70 minutes played, in the first of the two games the defending champions Manchester City had on leaders Arsenal on a warm Manchester evening, Erling Haaland ran behind the West Ham defence on to a through ball by Jack Grealish. It was inevitable. Haaland does not miss these, a little dink over the out-rushing keeper and then his trademark yoga celebration.

“Erling Haaland breaking more records,” proclaimed Jim Proudfoot on the official English Premier League transmission, “in what is now the most prolific season in the history of the Premier League.” Across the Atlantic, Peter Drury was weaving his usual magic on American TV, “the hottest shot in the history of the Premier League, Erling Haaland smashes through yet one more historic barrier.”

That goal was Haaland’s 35th in the league this season, in just his 31st game. More importantly, he had broken the Premier League’s goal-scoring record in his debut season. Move aside Messrs Andrew Cole and Alan Shearer, and their 42-game league seasons. But even more importantly, it gave Manchester City a two-goal lead on the night, as they cruised to victory and replaced Arsenal at the top of the leaderboard. A third consecutive championship is in their hands now.

Manchester City have dominated English football over the past decade. Ever since Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008 and they won their first Premier League title with that Aguero goal in 2012, they’ve gone on a pursuit of perfection which is exemplified by the appointment of Pep Guardiola as their manager in 2016.

The Spanish precisian, who revolutionised the game with the evolution of Tiki Taka during his time at Barcelona, has gone on to win four league titles in the six years he’s been at the club. It represents a domination not seen since the Manchester United of the late ’90s.

Manchester City may yet become only the second English club to complete a treble. A Spaniard and a Norwegian have played the biggest role in making it possible

Now, Guardiola was brought to the club to build on what Manchester City had already achieved: convert the domestic victories into continental success, namely the UEFA Champions League. But, surprisingly, for all his extraordinary success at Bayern Munich, Guardiola did not win the Champions League with the German club. And he hasn’t won it with City yet, either.

Not for lack of trying though. Beaten by a Kai Havertz strike in the final of the 2021 edition. Drowned out by the vociferous atmosphere at the Bernabeu in the semi-finals last year. This year, however, feels different.

That, primarily, is due to the aforementioned Erling Haaland. Never afraid to splash the cash, Manchester City snapped him up for £51 million in the summer of 2022. Only 22 and already a proven goal scorer at the top level — illustrated by a staggering 23 goals in just 19 games in the Champions League — Haaland joined Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish, John Stones and Riyad Mahrez, among others, as the latest big-money signing at the Etihad Stadium.

In the season curtain raiser, the FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Manchester City, both sides had the chance to showcase a shiny, new, expensive addition to their attacking line-up. Liverpool won the night, Darwin Nunez scoring the third goal as they beat City 3-1. Haaland missed a couple of presentable chances and was written off as being exposed by the tenacity of the English game. Well, that was foolish.

Barring de Bruyne, who joined a year before Guardiola took over the reins at Manchester City, all the players who have come in have taken time to adjust to Guardiola’s methods and his intricate style of play. Mahrez didn’t just jet in from Leicester and replicate his trademark chop-onto-the-left-foot finishes instantly. Stones had to wait a good couple of years before making the heart of the City defence his own.

More recently, Grealish, with all his technical ability and tricks and flicks, couldn’t nail a consistent starting slot for a year and a half, despite being City’s record signing.

While the first match might have suggested Haaland would be heading down that road, he went on to become the fastest player to 10 Premier League goals, doing so in just six games. And he hasn’t slowed down.

Twelve goals in the Champions League in eight games, becoming the fastest to score 35 goals in the prestigious tournament along the way in a hardly believable 27 games. The felling of the ages-old single season goal-scoring record already stated.

Just Google a list of single-season goal-scoring records in the Premier League or Manchester City history and you’ll find a lot of Erling Haaland there. Fifty-one goals in 45 games across all competitions. Freakishly good; as a commentator put it, “The guy’s a robot, absolute goal machine.”

Hitting the ground running in Guardiola’s City isn’t the only thing which makes him special. Physically, Haaland is a massive 6 feet and 5 inches and weighs 88kg. With that physique, you’d expect him to have aerial prowess and enough strength to muscle defenders off the ball. But Haaland combines them with blistering acceleration and pace, clocking in at a rapid top measured speed of 36.5 km/h this season.

And to top it all off, he also possesses agility, which belies his frame, scoring Zlatan Ibrahimovic-esque goals against Dortmund and Southampton. His reading of the game, his maturity despite his tender age, and his world-class finishing ability enable him to make the game look stupidly simple at times. A proper cheat code.

When Guardiola decided to buy Haaland as the missing piece in the jigsaw of perfection he was building at Manchester City, a lot of people thought the two represented entirely different styles of play. Guardiola had spent the last two seasons perfecting intricate plays of mesmerising passing with a false nine, relying on walking the ball in rather than an ailing Sergio Aguero as the focal point. Haaland, on the other hand, is the apt definition of a modern-day striker, who would definitely play as a focal point.

What has transpired has been beautiful, the amalgamation of Guardiola’s lust for control with Haaland’s direct play, to allow for breathtaking creative brilliance. And in hindsight, it wasn’t that anti-Guardiola at all. At Barcelona, he perfected Tiki Taka before making Lionel Messi the 91-goal wonder he was in 2012. At Bayern Munich, he laid the foundations before elevating Robert Lewandowski to Super Saiyan mode.

Manchester City and Haaland have four games of the Premier League, a rematch of last year’s incredible Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, and an FA Cup final against Manchester United to etch their names in history. For City, a chance to finally get their hands on the Champions League title they’ve coveted for so long, the reason they’ve hired the best coach in the world and built the most efficient footballing institution.

Combine that with the retention of the Premier League title and the regaining of the FA Cup trophy, and they’ll become only the second English team to win the treble after Manchester United in 1999. Added motivation for the Red Devils to spoil the party in the FA Cup final. For Haaland, eight more games to chase down Dixie Dean’s record of 63 goals in all competitions set way back in 1928.

People will argue that Manchester City have “bought” their way to the top. Yes, they have incredible reserves and are being investigated for a potential breach of Financial Fair Play Regulations. But let’s not forget how many other clubs have splurged out massive amounts without a fraction of the success City have enjoyed.

City have developed a proper institution with the help of Guardiola, one which could sustain on its own once he leaves. Combining riches with cleverness, something very rare in modern football. And so, this juggernaut of a football club backed by Abu Dhabi rolls on. The sky-blue ribbons are here to stay.

The writer is a sports enthusiast with a background in supply chain management.
He tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2023

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