Erling Haaland’s shadow show adds intrigue to the Manchester City story | Manchester city

meIt took less than two minutes at Stamford Bridge for two Pep Guardioladressed on a balmy January night in his navy blue crew-neck Captain Haddock uniform and thick black boots, appears on the seam and begins to move his arms in a series of lightning-quick spinning gestures.

Guardiola whistled and circled. summoned Erling Halland They fired machine guns at him with tactical instructions. Haaland nodded. What did Pep say here? Look a little more menacing? walk around a bit? At this point the game is 90 seconds old.

At times, it seems as if Guardiola likes to find mysteries, twists and snags. Haaland is magic of a different kind, a player so ready, so streamlined in his skill set that putting him in Guardiola’s team is a bit like serving Steve McQueen with a self-driving motorcycle. Fine. But what should I do? Even in his post-match press conference, Guardiola started talking about playing with false nine for most of his career. Erling’s solution. It sometimes seems as though this will be his entire season.

And for a while, Haaland found himself on the brink of this chaotic and difficult game, which ended with An excellent 1-0 win for Manchester City. Excellent because it felt like the kind of grudging victory that worries title contenders. And excellent because for the first 45 minutes City played like a team of left-footed tricksters, ranged in a formation so cautious and oddly tight against a depleted Chelsea lineup that by the end the blue-shirted players kept appearing increasingly intrusive. dirty; A teenager here, an excited, baby-faced guy there (and Lewis Hall, 18, was looking really sharp).

Through all of this, it was also a great game to watch for Haaland. did not score, did not assist a goal, did not take a shot on goal; But from almost a state of invisibility, he ended up having a very encouraging match. He touched the ball 31 times in 70 minutes. He played the full 90 but it took him 20 minutes to get his first actual touch. Players often do a lot of good hidden work at times like this, creating space by occupying space, moving the opponent around and all the rest. Haaland didn’t really do any of that. He waited. He was lurking and moving around. Was he really playing football in any sense?

The city seemed strangely constipated. They didn’t press, they passed the ball with difficulty. Supply was again in short supply, with one player stuck at each touchline as City had often swarmed in numbers in the past, sending the entire game out to the flanks.

Guardiola chose his captains here. Phil Foden made his first start for City since November 12. But what exactly is this thing? A wing-back sort of formation, with Foden as the left-side floating captain? Who was playing with Haaland, or creating space in the shape of Haaland while he was waiting to be involved? For a while it was Ilkay Gundogan. Then it was Kevin De Bruyne. Then there was no one.

Jack Grealish (centre) celebrates with Riyad Mahrez and John Stones after Manchester City's 1-0 win over Chelsea.
Jack Grealish (centre) celebrates with Riyad Mahrez and John Stones after Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea. Photo: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

Then finally, there was 20min 47sec in: Haaland on the ball next to the corner flag, Marc Cucurella bouncing away like a man slinging dandruff off his shoulder. There was almost a feeling of no climax about this. Thomas Sweswe Languages ​​once played 90 minutes for Kaiser Chiefs without touching the ball once, so there are levels here.

Haaland even had a chance after 37 minutes. Bernardo Silva pulled it off with a nice connecting drive and pass. Haaland’s movement was great. He took one touch with his left. The second, half a step later, was a powerful shot into Matthew Harding’s platform.

At the end of the first half, Guardiola changed the game, doing it with some very Pep-like changes, removing Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo and bringing in Rico Luis and Manuel Akanji: City at that point used six defenders, eight if you count the two provisional wingers. But it worked. Suddenly they were everywhere Chelsea, pressing high, winning the ball again and again. Throwing himself into the challenges, Nathan Ackie headed to the bar.

And suddenly Haaland found a way to play. He was constantly running around, delving deeper, and connecting the play. He looked angry at times. After the hour had passed, he made an astonishingly fast, shark-like run, sensed what purpose awaited him, and the day began to open up. Aki turned and pushed the ball to the left wing. Haaland howled and raised his arms.

But City was playing like City now, with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez in the wide positions, and three minutes after they came they combined to make the only goal. Grealish’s pass met no resistance in the Chelsea area and found Mahrez at the far side, who fired it into the net. Grealish has three assists in a week now. City fans sang about Super Jack. He inflated his chest.

What can be made of this? By the end, City looked like a fluent attacking force, and Haaland like a willing runner, a man who finds a real-time way to play in that team, a way to connect and move with City’s wingers. It is still a learning process. For six years, the entire game, the City story, was based around those offensive overloads, the extra man, the extra angles.

This stylish version is new to everyone. Here we have a team of 10 pep parts and one nail on the goalpost hammer. Haaland is a killer. Is the killer always what you want? That’s quite a shift in texture for everyone else on this team. No wonder there are periods of drift, static, and overlap. Victory here, and victory with Haaland just another shoulder on the wheel, seemed like another step towards resolving this.

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