The range of the Norwegian’s skillset will make him a nightmare for defenders. His biggest challenge could be Manchester City suiting his style
Erling Haaland is the superstar of the next generation, and you can be sure that David Moyes and his West Ham players have spent a portion of this week talking about how they can stop him. There’s no easy answer to that question.
They won’t be fearful of that challenge, I’m sure of that. Players will be buzzing about the prospect of taking him on because the eyes of the world are tracing his next step. It should excite you as a professional footballer, especially as a start to a new season.
I will always remember Chelsea visiting my Coventry team on the opening day of the 1998/’99 campaign.
We had beaten them in the opener the year before so the game had an edge, but the real spice was the arrival of Marcel Desailly making his Premier League debut, fresh from winning the World Cup and his trophy-laden years at AC Milan. I was in awe of that great Milan side so I was fascinated by the challenge of that game.
Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby gave Desailly a very difficult afternoon and we won 2-1. The Premier League really does ask questions like no other in the world.
Moyes and his players will know the threat of Haaland, but also know that if they overcompensate for him they will get punished by City’s other star men.
What would I be thinking if I was preparing for this game as a defender? We’d probably be talking about making sure we don’t give them space in behind because Haaland can punish you.
That’s an obvious adjustment. But what’s interesting with City now is that they have an option for putting crosses into the box which they didn’t have before.
I know Liverpool won the Community Shield, yet there was even a moment in that game when Virgil van Dijk, the best defender in the world, was caught out by this. The ball went wide at one point and I believe he subliminally switched off because playing against City you’re probably used to it staying out there. A quick ball was sent in and Haaland should have scored. That was a little moment worth remembering.
For all of Man City’s brilliance, teams would have formed an idea of what to expect from them even if they can’t always stop it. Haaland gives them a new approach.
Defending against a player with his attributes is all about distances. He’s a freak, blessed with that combination of physicality and technicality ability which is so rare. I’ve only encountered a few players with equal strength in those departments, individuals who played like they were 5ft 8ins when they were actually over 6ft 2ins. And Haaland is 6ft 5ins.
Ruud Gullit was one of those, yet the player that really stands out for me is Alen Boksic. Yes, I know that when he came to the Premier League with Middlesbrough, he was probably past his best. But I had encountered him when Croatia played against Ireland – this was when he was in his pomp in Serie A, an exceptional player with Lazio and Juventus. He was almost 6ft 4ins and had the physicality that comes with that but he was skilful and he could spin off you.
I played against bigger names. I remember Thierry Henry coming to England and I was involved in a famous game at Coventry where Robbie Keane scored an amazing winner for us. Henry stuck wide in those days and I’ve no clear memory of him; he was a different animal later on.
Then there was the big men like Niall Quinn and Duncan Ferguson and Dion Dublin who were always a threat but they never going to run away from you.
But when people ask me who my hardest opponent was, Boksic is the name that pops into my head. He was past his best, yet he wasn’t bad at Middlesbrough either.
I was on the pitch for his Premier League debut in August 2000 and fortunately I was picked at right-back. Colin Hendry started at centre-half, and Boksic ran riot, scoring twice. That was the end of Colin’s Coventry career. He wasn’t picked again.
Anyway, about those distances.
With a defender, a natural instinct is to think you need to get tight to a striker like that. However, the flip side of that is that Haaland has got such a presence, and a speed of thought, that he can roll you. He can put a defender on his arse easily with his power so if defenders think about trying to rough him up a little bit and get into a physical confrontation, it won’t work.
A lot of Premier League centre-halves now are quite small and mobile and Haaland will mess them about. So you don’t want to get too close either; it’s about trying to keep him at arm’s length.
West Ham is a topical opener for him. Pep Guardiola had a good record against West Ham until their last two meetings, the penalty defeat in the League Cup after a scoreless draw and then the 2-2 draw in May to make the title race even more interesting.
In those two games combined, City had 56 attempts on goal. Fifty-six! A return of two goals from that screams out that they require a number nine, a finisher, and they’ve brought in a player with the best goal-per-minute ratio in Bundesliga history.
It appears a perfect fit, but it will need some adjustment and I think it’s the team who will have to adjust rather than the player. That’s a stark contrast from signings for Guardiola teams in the past. Aguero had to adjust to such an extent that he was covering 2km more per game under Guardiola.
Henry had to change his game at Barcelona too. That’s two of the greatest ever Premier League forwards.
While it takes time for players to understand the complexities of the Guardiola approach, Haaland may be the exception. Not because he can’t or won’t play the City way but because the team is evolving and he will be the principal goal-getter whereas with a false nine they were shared around.
For so long, City have played successfully without a single focal point of attack. They have an incredibly high technical level to find space in tight areas created by overloads from a swift switch of play which disorientates the opposition. As a consequence, they don’t immediately look forward.
In the Community Shield, I noted three simple passes to Haaland that would have resulted in a strike on goal were overlooked. I’m convinced that it wasn’t a case of team-mates ignoring him – they just did not see them. This is the crux of the issue.
Now they have a quintessential number nine to hit, they can’t see the wood from the trees.
I’m fascinated to see this evolution. In Guardiola’s first season at Bayern, they scored 94 goals in a title win, and brought in the top scorer in Robert Lewandowski and in the next two years they scored around the 80 mark.
That’s why I don’t agree with anyone declaring Haaland to be a game-changer for City. They’re looking for a fifth title in six seasons! That description is for a player who can add 20 points to a team like Alisson and Van Dijk did for Liverpool.
To say Haaland could be the difference at Champions League level is a counterpoint to that but they did score five goals in two legs of a semi-final with Real Madrid. Their failure was conceding six and collapsing in time added on.
City v Liverpool will remain the headline act this year, and it exists as a football rivalry without the drama of Fergie v Wenger or Jose v Rafa. The intrigue is in both managers being challenged to divert from systems which have proved so successful. Liverpool have recruited a recognised centre-forward in Darwin Nunez to replace Sadio Mane. It’s bold but so in keeping with the brilliance of Klopp. I can’t wait to see how that one plays out.
I’m reluctant to refer to the rest as the chasing pack because they are so far behind, much as Antonio Conte’s shrewd signings will improve Spurs, while Arsenal have elevated their squad, Chelsea have signed well eventually and Erik ten Hag looks to have a clear philosophy to restore pride to Manchester United much as uncertainty remains around Cristiano Ronaldo.
But I feel the fight between City and Liverpool will be the story. Haaland will be at the centre of it.