Will Manchester City play to strengths of Erling Haaland after Liverpool loss? | Jonathan Wilson

Two golden chances were missed in the Community Shield and the striker was playing a different game to his teammates

Andriy Shevchenko, it might be remembered, had a very good Community Shield in 2006. He’d just joined Chelsea for £31m. Nobody seemed in any doubt that this was a transfer initiated by the owner Roman Abramovich. There were questions from the start about how he and Didier Drogba could play together and doubts regarding whether José Mourinho wanted him, but after a 2-1 defeat in which he scored Chelsea’s goal and was by some way their most potent attacking presence, the assumption was that he would turn out to be an upgrade on Drogba, who ended up stuck on in the right.

As it turned out, Drogba hit 20 goals for the first time in the Premier League that season while Shevchenko, struggling with fitness issues, never settled, scored just nine times in two seasons before returning on loan to Milan; his acquisition a background detail in the cooling relationship between Mourinho and Abramovich.

Let’s not get too carried away by the Community Shield. The type of coach who likes to tot up their trophies to make points to a sceptical public may take it seriously (when they win) but fundamentally it’s just another pre-season friendly, of significance only when things go wrong, whether that is Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan scrapping in 1974 and so providing an insight into the strained world of the Leeds dressing room under Brian Clough, or an unshaven Mourinho turning up in a sloppy tracksuit to oversee the loss of his long unbeaten record against Arsène Wenger in 2015.

It may be that this Community Shield, the first played in July and the first played in Leicester since 1971 – is rapidly forgotten, a tiny dot in the great and ever-expanding galaxy of football of note largely to Darwin Núñez, who came off the bench to win a penalty and score Liverpool’s third, and celebrated with such excitement over something of questionable value to suggest that, if the football doesn’t work out, he has a productive future ahead of him on QVC.

Erling Haaland had a day to forget at the King Power Stadium.
Erling Haaland had a day to forget at the King Power Stadium. Photograph: Michael Regan/The FA/Getty Images

But, if City don’t win the league this season, if they don’t make it five titles out of six, it may be the world looks back on this sunny afternoon at the King Power Stadium and sees it as the first warning of the crisis to come.

City have gambled this summer. They could have kept ploughing on, doing what has made them the most consistently excellent side in the world for the past five seasons. Since Pep Guardiola’s second season at the club, they have controlled possession, sliced through opponents in the same familiar patterns, and scored more goals than anybody else in the Premier League.

But they did not. The league is no longer their primary concern. The focus is the Champions League, the great prize that continues to elude them despite their wealth. Guardiola has spent a decade racking up implausible defeats at key stages. There’s been bad luck but there have been enough setbacks to make it reasonable to ask whether there might be something in his method that doesn’t quite work against the very best, when the pressure is at its greatest. So the solution was Erling Haaland, a very different type of forward: a big, physical striker, a different option, a blunt weapon amid the endless skeins of possession.

There has been a complete change of the profile of City’s attack and, after its first outing in a semi‑competitive environment, perhaps the politest thing that can be said is that there is a process of adaptation still required on both sides. Again, hindsight may see significance in his tweets the previous week: was the admission of buying Percy Pigs in Marks & Spencer just the innocent production of content for the social media machine? Or was a mischievous point being made to those at City who look to control every aspect of their squad’s lives?

(At M&S) Bought a bag of Percy Pig (don't tell anyone)

— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) July 25, 2022

It probably does none of us much good to peer too hard into the deeper meaning of the purchase of fruit‑flavoured confectionary, but there were warning signs on the pitch on Saturday as well. Haaland just seemed to be playing a very different game to his teammates. Again and again he set off on surges behind the Liverpool back four and again and again they went sideways, reluctant to risk possession with the sort of riskier pass that might give City a directness they have tended to eschew in recent years.

There were two bad misses as well, one in each half, but even that felt an ambiguous sign. He did not play well, looked out of sorts, is probably not yet up to full fitness and yet he could still easily have scored twice. Does that demonstrate an inherent clumsiness, set off more starkly by the filigree precision of City as a whole, or does it show that, even on an off day, he could give City the capacity to score a type of goal from nothing that has been alien to them for several years?

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One game is no evidence for anything, but the sense from Saturday was that Liverpool, again, have been smart in buying a player who fits perfectly within their system. Someone, like Luis Díaz in January, who settles almost immediately.

Haaland is a different case, but then he was always going to be. He is something different and, especially in a system as subtle as Guardiola’s, integrating will take time. Nobody should write the Norwegian off on the basis of Saturday; the example of Shevchenko shows the danger of reading anything into the Community Shield.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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