Italian super-agent Mino Raiola spent last Thursday in Spain touting his most sought-after client. First, he visited Barcelona to discuss a potential summer move for Erling Haaland. Then, just a few hours later, Raiola, along with the Norwegian striker’s father Alf-Inge Haaland, was in the capital to speak to Real Madrid.
No special trips were required for the sales pitch to be given to Manchester City, though, with Haaland himself in England this week to face Pep Guardiola’s team for Borussia Dortmund in the quarter finals of the Champions League. This was the 20-year-old’s chance to demonstrate his worth to another suitor.
The logic behind City’s interest in Haaland is clear after it was announced Sergio Aguero will leave the club at the end of the season. This will leave Guardiola light on central attacking options and so the signing of Haaland, the best young number nine in the game right now, would more than address this deficiency.
Aguero was Manchester City’s main man up front for a decade and there’s a sense Haaland would be a similarly generational figure for the club. Guardiola has recently played down the notion that his employers would pay £100 million or more (what Dortmund reportedly want for their prize asset) for a single player, but crucially provided caveats that could still leave wiggle room, adding a move could happen if City “decide it is necessary to improve the team for the next five, 10 years.” The case for Haaland’s signing doing that is strong.
Stylistically, Haaland isn’t the archetypal Guardiola striker. The 20-year-old is closer to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who lasted just one season under the former Barcelona manager at the Camp Nou, than Lionel Messi, or Aguero. Nonetheless, his performance for Dortmund on Tuesday hinted at the important role he could play for City.
There were glimpses of Haaland’s lightning pace and sheer physicality, most notably when he latched on to a through ball in the second, beating Ruben Dias for pace and then shrugging off the Portuguese centre back. Nobody else has done that to Dias this season and it was a sign of the sort of threat City were facing.
But there is more to Haaland’s game than just speed and strength and he displayed this in the reverse ball played in behind for Marco Reus’ equaliser. By dropping deep to receive the pass from Jude Bellingham, the Norwegian created space for his teammate to exploit. This is the sort of spatial awareness Guardiola expects from his centre forward. He requires more than just goals.
“To score that number of goals at his age is not easy,” Guardiola said ahead of the Champions League quarter final first leg, praising Haaland. “He’s 20 years old and the numbers speak for themselves. When that happens it’s because he can score with the right, the left, via counterattacks, in the box. He’s a fantastic striker, everyone knows it.”
Guardiola’s striker-less system has worked well for Manchester City this season, with Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva all showing a willingness to get into the box from deep to convert opportunities. This approach has made the Premier League pace-setters a nightmare for opposition defenders who find it difficult to track so many runners.
Despite this, there is a sense City need a new centre forward to build around and there was enough in Haaland’s display on Tuesday night to suggest he could be that figure. Some adaptation would be required by both parties, but Guardiola’s system has the flexibility to make room for the Norwegian.