Record-breaker Erling Haaland makes the extraordinary look predictable again
Making history is rarely as unsurprising. The problem Erling Haaland has is that the predictability of his exploits can dull the sense of wonder. It was not a question of if he scored more goals than anyone else in a season in Premier League history but when and how. Just when it seemed he was about to go on a one-game goal drought, he accelerated on to Jack Grealish’s pass and chipped a shot that, aided by Lukasz Fabianski crouching, flew into the West Ham net.
It took to him 35 league goals. And now every great goalscorer the division has ever boasted is behind Haaland: the record of 34, set in a 42-game season, shared by Andy Cole and Alan Shearer for the last 28 years, fell, as it long appeared obvious it would. It also took him to 51 in all competitions: Tom “Pongo” Waring and Vic Watson, figures mentioned rather less often since the Second World War than before it, mustered a half-century apiece but now there is only Dixie Dean, with his increasingly iconic number of 63, set in 1927-28, ahead of Haaland. Only one footballer has ever got more goals in a season for an English top-flight side.
The Norwegian’s numbers are Dean-esque, seemingly plucked from another era: 17 in his last 10 games, 13 in his last six at home. The first two of his 51 came against West Ham, back in August, so perhaps they were fitting opponents for a record-breaking strike. In fairness, David Moyes’s depleted team had mounted a better effort to stop Haaland than most: for 69 minutes, he had had little service. One difficult chance was headed over, one run into the box halted by a wonderfully-timed challenge by Thilo Kehrer, but he was well policed.
And yet one real chance was all it required. It highlighted the pace Haaland has and the ability to run in behind defences that forms part of a formidable armoury. It was facilitated, in a way, by Nathan Ake, whose opening goal forced West Ham to open up and push up. They were duly punished: Haaland now has the most goals in a top-flight league season since Ron Davies, and his tally of 37, set for Southampton in 1966-67, looks to be the next to fall to the rampaging striker.
Along the way, he – along with Ake and Phil Foden, who scored a third to take City to 1,000 goals under Pep Guardiola – reshaped the title race, also in rather predictable fashion. Arsenal are consigned to second place again. They have led the way for 248 days but, with City in action again on Saturday, perhaps for no more. City, with nine straight wins in the league, show few signs of faltering.
Certainly not at home, where they extended a 100 per cent record in 2023, winning 13 out of 13. The last team to deny them victory at the Etihad, strange as it sounds, was Frank Lampard’s Everton. A former Everton manager has his task rendered tougher by the illness that ruled out Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Nayef Aguerd. With Kurt Zouma injured, Moyes was without a quartet who would have assumed importance in a defensive gameplan. But there was unexpected resistance from West Ham. They had conceded four to Crystal Palace but, with a weaker team lining up in a 5-4-1 formation, showed rather more obduracy.
City had 80 per cent of possession in the first half but just two shots on target. They missed Kevin de Bruyne, with Haaland’s supplier-in-chief absent again, and his extraordinary capacity to create something out of nothing. They only really threatened in a three-minute period when they struck the woodwork twice. Grealish clipped the outside of the post after a fine pass by John Stones. Then Rodri exchanged passes with Haaland, surged into the box and rolled a shot against the inside of the upright.
They found a prosaic way to break the deadlock after the break, scoring from a set-piece. Ake evaded Angelo Ogbonna to head in Riyad Mahrez’s free kick. The margin of victory felt flattering when Foden came off the bench and his 20-yard volley took a sizeable deflection off Emerson Palmieri.
It leaves West Ham facing the second half of a Mancunian double-header with points still required to secure their safety and Haaland set for a date with the team from the city he was born in. Leeds’ caretaker manager Sam Allardyce returns to the division confronted by a problem he never faced in his previous two decades in the division: how to stop Haaland.