Whisper it – but could Manchester City be better WITHOUT Erling Haaland?

Erling Haaland of Manchester City applauds the fans as they warm up during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Manchester, England.
(Image credit: Matt McNulty - Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Despite his dad's history, despite the childhood photos and despite the obvious axis between himself and Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City was never the obvious fit for Erling Haaland. FourFourTwo warned as much in our Season Preview. 

"Julian Alvarez might be much more Pep Guardiola’s type on paper than City’s new Scandi sweetheart," we prophecised back then, asking our dear reader to suspend their disbelief. "Slight, with a low centre of gravity and explosive over short distances, Alvarez can function wide or centrally and the ball seems to stick to his feet. As a Plan B to Big Erling, Little Alvarez might just capture hearts in a way that the cold giant can’t."

It's a trope almost as old as Pep Guardiola's career. Famously, the City boss could never gel with defining 'Big Man Up Top', Zlatan Ibrahimovic, when signed the Swede for Barcelona. Zlatan made Barça too direct, too obvious. Is history repeating itself?

Some say Manchester City are too direct with Erling Haaland

Erling Haaland of Manchester City interacts with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola during the Premier League match between Manchester City and AFC Bournemouth at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2022 in Manchester, England.

Erling Haaland is a very specific kind of player, isn't he? (Image credit: Manchester City FC via Getty Images))

It took a 4-0 FA Cup win over Chelsea for Twitter to ponder the question (opens in new tab). As the Sky Blues dismantled a darker shade sans their minimalist net botherer up front, they looked much more like their old selves, the fluidity of movement between the likes of Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Julian Alvarez all telepathic.

City haven't been bad this season by any stretch – though they are second in the league, two points worse off than this time last year. The argument is that Haaland is making Manchester City too predictable and direct: Guardiola's side flourished with false nines after Sergio Aguero left, attacking in a kind of 4-2-4 shape in which anyone would swoop into the box. Now that they have an obvious target man, it's easy to know how to stop him… even if few can. 

Manchester United had the same problem with Cristiano Ronaldo last season. It's not so much a question of a player's ability to put the ball into the back of the net – both Ronaldo and Haaland did at an alarming rate – but more how the side is geared to supply them. Is it easier to defend against a big striker like Haaland than smaller forwards, all dovetailing?

There's the question of why Haaland was signed, too. This is a player who has delivered in the heat of the Champions League – the holy grail for City. Guardiola had enough quality at his disposal to win league titles but lacked the "moments" man for European fixtures. Perhaps City are willing to compromise some of that league dominance for someone who will deliver continental titles…

On the flip-side, Haaland is a work in progress

Manchester United vs Erling Haaland: Manchester City unveil new signing Erling Haaland at Manchester City Football Academy in Manchester, England.

Haaland is, unbelievably, a player in development (Image credit: Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Guardiola clashed with a physical goalscorer like Ibrahimovic. Manchester United were ultimately better off before and after CR7. It's easy to forget – but Erling Braut Haaland is still just 22 and he's nothing like the other two, despite comparisons.

When the Norwegian rocked up in the Premier League, he said he was there to learn from Pep – and that's a key word that certainly suggests not just humility but an acceptance that he'll adapt in England and change as a player. Haaland must have an ego – all good strikers do – but he's young, made good decisions so far in his career and could yet evolve to be a better-rounded frontman. This isn't a case of a team desperate for goals, attaching their sails to a pirate who can hold them to ransom: Haaland needs City as much City need him. It seems like the player himself recognises that. 

And it's safe to say that the experiment is working on the whole. The Citizens might be two points down on last season but they're five goals up. Haaland has 21 goals and three assists in just 16 games, delivering at a rate that not even Ibra or Ronaldo could offer in return for a one-dimensional playing style. 

Manchester City are still good with Haaland (obviously) and still good without Haaland (also obviously)

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola celebrates his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton on 8 October, 2022 at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, United Kingdom

No Haaland, no problem (Image credit: Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Consider how important Kevin De Bruyne was to Manchester City when they racked up 100 points 2017/18. Now consider that they managed 98 points a year later, almost entirely without KDB and Bernardo Silva in his position instead. The truth is that City rarely miss anyone – however good they are – and that Haaland isn't so much as an integral part of a system but just one of many weapons in a Swiss Army Knife. 

Manchester City lined up against Chelsea in the Premier League with what looked like a back three in possession, Rodri dropping into the backline: that was switched at half-time, easily. They can move Joao Cancelo from one side to another, most of their centre-backs can play at full-back, both Rodri and Kalvin Phillips can play in defence, Phil Foden can drop into midfield and most famously, any of their midfielders can play as false nines. 

City's recruitment policy is near-unique because rather than searching for players who can fulfil the specific roles in their formation, they tend to sign players with the technical and physical attributes to turn their hand to any role on the field. Guardiola learned from Johan Cruyff, after all – and it's unlikely that Erling Haaland would even have been considered if there were reservations about him being able to slot into this team.

Haaland certainly delivers for City. City can still get the job done without Haaland. Perhaps the worry for everyone else should be how to deal with Erling Haaland when City start playing as fluidly with him. 

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Mark White
Staff Writer

Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.