The stats show that neither Pep Guardiola nor the Premier League have had a player quite like Man City's new striker Erling Haaland before and that is a problem for everyone else
Tuesday 30 August 2022 15:38, UK
“I have played all my career with No 9s,” Pep Guardiola told Sky Sports this summer before going on to list some of the most famous forwards in football. But the Manchester City head coach has never had a player quite like Erling Braut Haaland before.
With six goals in his first four Premier League games, Haaland has settled quicker than even Guardiola would have hoped and it has all looked alarmingly easy. Goals just seem to find the Norwegian and any fears about him having to adjust to City's style have faded.
Manchester City have not changed their approach. The build-up play remains patient - but so is Haaland. He has waited for the chances in the knowledge that they will come, held his position in the penalty box because his presence creates openings elsewhere.
"He cannot touch the ball, but he is always involved," says Guardiola.
When Haaland had only eight touches against Bournemouth on his Premier League home debut, that statistic made headlines. It was no more than a curio given that City won the game by four goals but it did highlight the challenge, as Guardiola explained.
"The most difficult job in the world is when you are in a striker and defenders defend in areas like Bournemouth. They have three central defenders and two players in front and everyone in the middle. How can you survive like that? It is so difficult."
It is a difficulty that City face more often than others. "Against these type of teams, we struggle because they defend so deep." And Haaland coming to receive the ball is not the solution. "When the holding midfielder stays in there it is not necessary to drop."
The striker's only choice is to accept that his role in this Manchester City team when they are dominating possession is to play the waiting game and trust that the ball will find him where it matters eventually. "He is a guy who lives in the box," says Guardiola.
Nobody has ever really played this way for City before.
Since Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, no player has had as few touches per 90 minutes as Haaland. In fact, nobody comes close. The next three City players to see so little of the ball are Ederson, Willy Caballero and Claudio Bravo - all of them goalkeepers.
Haaland is averaging 24.6 touches per 90 minutes. That is almost half as many as Sergio Aguero, a player who himself occasionally became frustrated about his lack of involvement. It is very rare for an elite striker to have so few touches of the ball.
Go through the list of Premier League golden boot winners over the past decade and the average number of touches per 90 minutes is 48.3 - almost double that of Haaland. Only Leicester's Jamie Vardy in the 2019/20 season was directly involved so rarely.
Vardy is one of only two players in the Premier League this season - the other being Newcastle's Callum Wilson - to touch the ball less often than Haaland. It feels extraordinary that Haaland is doing that in a team that has more touches than any other.
But all the evidence suggests that it does not matter. Haaland might not be touching the ball much in total, but when he does touch it, that touch tends to be significant. Nobody in the Premier League has had more shots from inside the penalty box this season.
Indeed, his total of six goals from 89 touches means that he is averaging a goal every 14.8 touches of the ball. For comparison, there are only five other Premier League players since 2010 averaging a goal every sixty touches of the ball. This is freakish efficiency.
The sample size is small so expect that number of touches per goal to rise, but it would be no shock if it remains lower than everyone else. This is a world-class penalty-box player in a team that creates higher-quality chances than the rest. Haaland is ruthless.
Consider those goals against Crystal Palace, each of them revealing in their own way. The first was an inviting cross from Phil Foden but Haaland's strength made it inevitable. The second was an example of what Guardiola called his "incredible sense of goal".
The third showed what will happen when opponents make the mistake of allowing space in behind for him to run into. It was all so easy for him after that. "He does not shoot the ball, he places it in the net. The number of goals that he has scored is astonishing."
He has the highest expected-goals tally of any Premier League player and yet he is significantly outperforming that expected-goals number too. Again, though the sample size is small, it is a trait that is entirely in-keeping with his career to date.
In the Bundesliga, he consistently outperformed his expected goals. In the Champions League, he is outperforming his expected-goals total by 37 per cent - suggesting that he is a superior finisher to every one of the world's greatest strikers of the past decade.
The risk when a team has such a potent scorer is to look for him too often and too quickly. A frequent criticism of Cristiano Ronaldo in his latter years is that while he has continued to score, the teams that he has been playing in have seen their totals decrease.
Even though Haaland has not been involved in the build-up play, he has been on the end of a high proportion of their chances. Only Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic - just - has had a greater share of his team's non-penalty expected goals so far this season.
The figure could have been even higher. Foden cost his team a certain goal when choosing not to square the ball to him in the first half against Bournemouth. Speaking to Joao Cancelo recently, developing an understanding with Haaland is clearly a priority.
When his new team-mates understand him better, the temptation will be to look for him more and more. It will be interesting to see if that brings about a change of approach. For now, the signs are that Guardiola wants them to remain patient - just like their striker.
"We will find many of these situations," says Guardiola, "but it is a question of time - the right moment, the right tempo, the right movement. But the quality of players we have behind him, to assist him, we will find him. I have no doubt about that."
Premier League defences, beware.