Erling Haaland’s ‘passing map’ for his home debut at the Etihad Stadium was not exactly the scattered patterns of his team-mates.
Manchester City’s new €60million striker found his team-mates just twice all game. That is a stark comparison with Joao Cancelo, who has completed more than 200 passes in his two games this season. Indeed, passing the ball just twice in a Pep Guardiola team is an achievement itself.
Yet the Norwegian still pulled apart Bournemouth’s defence in the 4-0 victory — his first appearance at City’s home.
He only had eight touches all game but showed how opponents will find it difficult to stop City with their new signing in the team.
One of Haaland’s two completed passes was at kick-off in the second half but his actions when play got under way earlier in the afternoon showed that he is the type of forward who will be the first line of defence for City when they do not have the ball.
Seconds after Bournemouth got the match started, he sprinted straight towards Lloyd Kelly to pressure him on the ball and force a long pass. His game is about patience when City are in possession but he will be part of an intense pressing game without the ball.
Haaland’s first touch of the ball came after an astonishing 19 minutes but it led to an assist for the opening goal. He had three players around him and was falling to the floor yet smuggled his pass through for Ilkay Gundogan to score.
This is how he proved so effective: occupying multiple defenders and allowing team-mates to run off him into space.
“He has the hunger and desire to keep the ball and to give the ball when we arrived in the box,” said Gundogan. “It was not meant to be in this game for him to score but he played well and made it easy for me to score. Hopefully in the future I can assist him.”
Running in behind
Those watching edited highlights of City’s 4-0 win could accuse Haaland of having a quiet game but this was not the case. After City had established a lead, Rodri sent him through with a lofted pass and he was through on goal, only for his footwork to let him down and the ball to come off his knee.
He kept making movements to run behind Bournemouth’s defence but was facing a backline who were so deep it gave him no space. He will have to stay patient and get used to this tactic when teams come to the Etihad to defend.
Haaland, according to first-team sources, is so eager to learn at City that he will closely watch training sessions he is not involved in. He is learning quickly that hard work is the foundation of City’s beautiful football. When he lost possession while trying to hold the ball up, he was manic in running back and trying to win the ball. He played an important role in Kevin De Bruyne’s goal when he engaged physically with Kelly and Jefferson Lerma.
Despite losing the aerial challenge, City picked up the second ball and seconds later the ball shifted to De Bruyne, who finished off the move.
During a rare set-piece attack from Bournemouth, Haaland remembered almost at the last minute that he was needed in his own penalty area. When the long throw came in he headed away and also earned a free-kick. This could be a different dimension to City’s game this season, with Haaland a huge presence in the team.
As he walked from the team coach to the dressing-room, dressed in a hoodie and blue Louis Vuitton rucksack, he towers over his team-mates. For a team who are short but technically superior, he adds a different way of attacking and will be important defending.
Only Mark Travers’ athleticism denied Haaland a goal on his home debut. After being found in a tight area in the penalty area, he made a chance out of a bouncing ball with a lob that was heading on target before Travers tipped over the crossbar.
His final action in the game was dragging a shot wide after Jack Grealish pulled the ball back to him, which was a chance he would be expected to put away. The worry for City’s opponents is that he would create these chances in a game where he was characterised as quiet.
Haaland was screaming at Phil Foden when he had a simple pass to set up an open goal but chose to shoot and had his effort saved. It was Foden who was taken off at half-time in a tactical switch, despite scoring City’s third goal. “He has to pass the ball,” said Guardiola. “Now he has to know Erling will be there all the time in these situations. In the past maybe with a false nine the players wouldn’t know, but this guy is there.”
Haaland also had half a shout for a penalty and had an easy finish pinched off his head by Lerma.
The incredible part of Haaland’s game is how patient he remained, showing maturity beyond his 22 years to hold his position and wait for his chances. There was no temptation to follow the way of Harry Kane, drop deep and get involved in build-up play as a No 10.
But he remained on the shoulder of the last defender and kept making well-timed runs even when the likes of Riyad Mahrez would shape to cross and check back.