Football Features

Is Erling Haaland really the “perfect fit” for Man City?

By Jake Entwistle

Published: 13:50, 13 June 2022

Man City have just confirmed the signing of the best young forward in the world. Arguably, it won’t be long until he’s the best forward in the world, full stop. But does that mean Erling Haaland will win the Premier League Golden Boot?

Despite closing in on yet another Premier League title without a traditional centre-forward, City’s desire to add an out-and-out striker to their squad has been clear for a while (last summer’s relentless pursuit of Harry Kane shines a significant torch on their recent transfer policy).

Ultimately, Pep Guardiola’s near-obsessive drive to bolster his frontline with a more orthodox No. 9 has been galvanised by his desire to win the Champions League — recently coming up short yet again — rather than addressing any league issues.

Erling Haaland is the pinnacle of this transfer brief, a single-minded goal machine that seems to break a new record every time he hits the back of the net. The assumption is that he will smash through the 30-goal barrier without breaking a sweat. But how likely is that to happen?

We’ll be looking at the reasons why he might emerge as the favourite to win the 2022/23 Premier League Golden Boot as well as providing some cautionary tales that suggest you should rein back your goal predictions. Unless stated otherwise, we’re using the past two seasons of Europe’s top five leagues combined for all our stats.

So, let’s see what separates this Norwegian goal fiend from us mere mortals…

Freaky Finisher

Erling Haaland is the most clinical player in European football. That’s an objective fact. Since the start of the 2019/20 season, 838 players have attempted 50+ non-penalty shots in a top-five European division and Erling Haaland has the best conversion rate (27.3%).

In 2021 alone, Haaland won Squawka’s The Most Award for ‘Most Non-Penalty Goals Added’ in a top-five European division. His Non-Penalty Expected Goals value jumped from 20.1 NPxG – calculated based on the location of his shots – to 25.4 NPxGOT – calculated based on the placement of his shots on target.

zhis combination of high-quality chances and freakish finishing ability makes him the most terrifying centre-forward in the world. In his senior career for club and country, he has scored a goal once every 98.6 minutes. Since joining Dortmund, he has scored a Bundesliga or Champions League goal once every 84 minutes. This summer, he’s joining a team that has averaged 2.18 xG per game since Pep Guardiola took charge. We really are expecting goals.

The No.1 fan of Pep’s No.1 nemesis

The Norwegian’s box-to-box, bulldozing run against PSG and a predilection to spring from the offside trap belies a penalty-box presence we would usually associate with the likes of Jamie Vardy, Pep Guardiola’s worst nightmare. But, given the fact, Haaland has cited the Old-Aged Poacher as one of his most-watched role models, the following stats may not shock you.

Of the 259 players to score 10+ non-penalty goals in Europe’s top five leagues since 2020/21, Erling Haaland ranks eighth for fewest touches per shot (9.3) — Anthony Modeste and Victor Osimhen (7.87) top this list, with Jamie Vardy letting fly every 9.85 touches.

When looking at fewest touches per goal, Haaland ranks first ahead of Robert Lewandowski. A more pertinent metric when looking at Haaland’s role as a ‘poacher’ is his percentage of total touches in the opposition box — penalty box proximity might be a good way to think about it.

Using the same non-penalty goal criteria, Haaland ranks third behind Jamie Vardy (23.7%) and Mauro Icardi (23.9%), with 22.5% of the Norwegian’s touches coming inside the box. That’s exactly the kind of player profile Guardiola has been urged to sign. And it looks like he has agreed with the notion.

Interestingly, Harry Kane does not fit this archetype. 11.5% of his touches come inside the opposition box while he averages 12.24 touches per shot and 99.53 per non-penalty goal. Kane is a complete forward and would have added plenty to this Man City side, but perhaps Haaland is the better option because he adds exactly what they are missing.

Cut-Back (Man) City

As you might expect given points one and two, Haaland not only shoots a lot but he also shoots a lot from very good positions to shoot a lot from. A post from American Soccer Analysis highlighted that shots in the Golden Zone — inside the box within the width of the goal — assisted by through balls and cut-backs are converted most often, despite the fact they are the rarest type of chance-creating pass.

Well, guess who loves a through ball? Kevin De Bruyne. And guess who loves a cut-back? Pep Guardiola. Since 2020/21, Man City have attempted the second-most pull-backs in Europe’s top five divisions. In that time, only two players have attempted more through balls than Kevin De Bruyne’s 33. Need I say any more?

Rent free inside the six-yard box

OK, I will. It will come as no surprise to learn that shots from inside the six-yard box are more likely to be scored than shots from outside the six-yard box. It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that only 9% of Erling Haaland’s total shots have come from inside the six-yard box.

Let’s compare this to Pep’s go-to goal-getters: Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. 18.1% of Sterling’s efforts are from inside the ‘Inzaghi zone’, with Jesus operating at 14.3%. When looking at goals, 52.2% of Sterling’s 23 league goals in this time have been inside this area. Jesus – a record-breaking penalty-box goal-scorer – is at 41.2% — and Erling drops down to 22.4%. There are numerous factors which could explain this, but that might be for another time. The main point is that Man City generate lots of six-yard box shooting opportunities for their forwards — it’s worth highlighting Sterling and Jesus have both been deployed as the wide-forwards.

But even if Haaland plays exclusively through the middle, expect his numbers to jump towards a Sterling-level under Pep. Add that to the freaky finishing and gold-standard conversion rate mentioned at the start and the answer should be: lots of goals.

Erling Haaland Specials with Sky Bet

The Fast Breaks and The Furious

But perhaps, don’t get too excited. Although the KDB through balls and trademark cut-backs forecast a deluge of goals, there are also stylistic differences that might temper expectations.

The Bundesliga is famous for its breakneck transitions and Dortmund are no exception. Only Leverkusen can beat BVB’s tally in the German top-flight in this time period — and Haaland was the chief beneficiary from them. Of their 50 fast breaks, Haaland was involved in 15 of them. Of the 39 shots that occurred from these situations, Haaland had 11 of them. At City, fast breaks are less frequent.

They have had 40 in the past two seasons, leading to 37 shots and scoring five goals. And although not exclusively from fast breaks, it’s worth highlighting that only Mohamed Salah (12), Kylian Mbappé (11) and Wissam Ben Yedder (11) have had more shots from one-on-one situations than Haaland (10) over the past two seasons, while the Norwegian’s tally represents 50% of Dortmund’s total — and only four fewer than the entire Man City squad combined.

Romelu Lukaku is the perfect cautionary tale in this context.

Under Antonio Conte in 2020/21, Inter generated more fast breaks than any other team in Europe (34) and Lukaku had more shots as a result of these situations than any other player (13). In 2021/22, Chelsea embarked on just 19 and did not score a single goal when doing so.

Of course, this is not necessarily Thomas Tuchel’s fault. Their approach can be dictated by the opposition’s choice to sit back, but, either way, it pretty much explains why Lukaku has not reproduced his Capocannoniere-winning form in Chelsea blue: he moved from a team that was able to consistently create counter-attacking opportunities – which he loves – to a side that is rarely able to. It all seems so obvious now.

This is not to say the same fate will befall Haaland at Man City — keep thinking of the sweet, sweet cut-backs — but it is an interesting point to consider. Haaland will definitely need to adapt some aspects of his game and fewer fast breaks could mean fewer goals overall.

Pep Roulette

AGUUUUUUERRROOOOOOOOOOO is the only Man City player in Premier League history to win a Golden Boot outright. Carlos Tevez shared it with his not-so-noisy neighbour Dimitar Berbatov in 2010/11, but only three campaigns have seen the winner(s) score fewer than their 20 goals.

And, despite the introduction, Aguero claimed his Golden Boot in the 2014/15 season — Chelsea won the league that year. That means that no City player has won the award since Guardiola took charge. A statement that sounds even more ridiculous when you realise De Bruyne has provided at least 28 more Premier League assists than any other player since 2016/17, and played just over a quarter of the 2018/19 campaign, in terms of minutes.

It’s probably because of ‘Pep Roulette’. As any Fantasy Premier League player knows all too well, Guardiola just can’t resist rotating his forward line. Since he took charge, no forward has played more than 3,000 minutes in a single Premier League campaign.

In fact, the highest share of minutes by any player that is usually found in the front three was from Sterling in 2018/19. He played 81% of the 3,420 possible Premier League minutes on offer, scoring 17 goals. Ironically, that left him four behind team-mate Aguero – who did score 43% of his total, via three hat-tricks — and five behind the Golden Boot-winning trio of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Initiating Golden Boot protocol

So, will Erling Haaland win the Golden Boot after feasting on cut-backs? Will the fast-break famine see his output fall off? Will ‘Pep Roulette’ lead to a gold standard in per 90 goal-scoring, but a total that falls short?

In his first season, I would lean towards the latter. But, overall, Haaland’s outrageous output suggests we should expect at least one Premier League Golden Boot on his mantlepiece before he’s done at City. The man is a goal machine.

The “Perfect Fit”

It may prove that Daniel Levy’s stubborn transfer stance on Kane turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Pep. As alluded to, the England forward is a more rounded player than Haaland, underlined by his Golden Boot and Playmaker of the Season double last term — Kane transcends pure goalscoring devastation alone.

As mentioned, Haaland appears more in line with the sort of forward Guardiola has been seeking to complete his penalty-box puzzle. And former Man City defender turned enthusiastically-endearing pundit Micah Richards appears to agree with the prevailing notion, believing Haaland is a “perfect fit”.

Richards told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club: “It’s the perfect fit. In terms of style of play, maybe he might find it difficult in terms of dropping into little positions. His link-up play I wouldn’t say is the best, but he can certainly do it.”