The Erling Haaland issue that Manchester City must solve
As Pep Guardiola sat down to his post-game press conference, there were a few comments that could have been construed as swipes. He referred to Tottenham defending with nine men, and said he wouldn’t again describe them as “the Harry Kane team” as he didn’t want to upset Mauricio Pochettino. In truth, though, none of this was delivered with enough energy to feel any way deliberate as barbs. There wasn’t much energy at all, which was pretty much like his Manchester City team in their 1-0 defeat to Spurs.
The difference with his press conference after his previous match against the same opposition, just a few weeks ago, couldn’t have been more pronounced. It was then that Guardiola went on an impassioned monologue, referring to “happy flowers”. While his meaning was often difficult to decipher, the intention wasn’t.
Guardiola wanted a response out of his team. He wanted hunger. On the evidence of this, and even his response, he hasn’t got it.
What was worse was that this defeat felt relatively routine - and not just because of City’s abysmal scoreless record at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Everything had seemed set up for a statement showing. City had broken Spurs’ tactical hold over them in that last match. They’d just beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup. Arsenal had then followed that with a defeat against Everton. Antonio Conte was missing. Spurs have had problems.
This looked like it would be the start of one of those runs, that everything keeps waiting for. It’s just this isn’t the first time that’s been said. This is far from the first defeat.
It was actually their fourth in the league, after just 21 games.
Manchester City under Pep Guardiola after 21 league games of a season
It is one of the worst returns from the same period out of all Guardiola’s seasons at City. The only two where there have been more defeats at this point, in 2019-20 and 2016-17, also turned out to be his worst campaigns. They weren’t just the only seasons when he didn’t win the title, but were also when they finished well off the top. Now, rather than cutting the gap to two points, City have allowed Arsenal the most valuable reprieves - especially as doubt would surely have started to grow.
These last nine days after all represented the first time that Mikel Arteta’s side lost successive games this season.
You just wouldn’t have expected it from City in any of those title races with Liverpool. The feeling would have been they were just going to be ruthless, showing what a title race really takes.
It is here of course that all of the factors that have potentially disrupted this season must be raised.
There is the effect of a half-decade of full throttle against Liverpool, which Jurgen Klopp’s side may be suffering from too. There’s then the basic hunger that is sated with successive titles, which Guardiola has recognised, and is why only five English teams in history have won three in a row. There’s the World Cup, and effects we probably haven’t yet seen in full. This is obvious context for why a 31-year-old in Kevin De Bruyne has now been benched for two matches against Spurs.
There’s a surprisingly thin squad, made worse by Guardiola’s decision to offload Joao Cancelo. There’s then the manager’s own situation, given every year seems to at least raise some debate as to whether he could go in the summer. There’s then the new factor at the top of all that, literally, in Erling Haaland.
Kane’s all-action performance in the 1-0 defeat to Spurs only emphasised how he can do so many things the Norwegian can’t, but this was also a game when Haaland didn’t do what he can arguably do better than anyone.
He didn’t have a shot, for the first time in the Premier League. He didn’t even have a touch on the box. It meant, other than the manner that he occupies defenders with his runs, the Norwegian was almost useless. It was like City were playing with 10 men, which is often how they’ve built attacks.
None of this is to say it’s a chronic issue. City may yet win the Champions League with him, not to mention the Premier League. It’s just, before you get to that, there is clearly an issue to solve.
While none of the City players are yet talking about the signing of Haaland in those terms, there is a feeling among the group they are more “static”. The unpredictability of movement isn’t there.
That could yet make for an unpredictable title race, above anything else.
That is one other possible consequence of all this.
While Arsenal have, up to this weekend, been in Liverpool 2018-19 form, it is possible that the rigours of a race start to get to them. They may wobble more. On the evidence of this, however, City may well do the same.
It is a long, long time since we’ve seen something like that. The financially stratified nature of modern football means Premier League title races tend to go to the outer limits, with champions usually getting around 90 points or much more. Even City’s first title under the Abu Dhabi ownership, which is probably the last where we saw a classic race in terms of slips and errors, still involved a winning haul of 89 points.
City, remarkably, are currently on course for seven points less than that. That would be highly unusual for the Guardiola era. It is because defeats have become an unexpectedly usual occurrence.