Erling Haaland, systems-based teams and the role of the goalscorer | Erling Haaland

meLining Haaland is a phenomenon. It’s not just that he’s already scored 22 goals this season, plus five more goals in the Champions League. He is the sensation that he offers of being unstoppable: almost unbeatable in pace, almost impossible to knock down the ball and with a clinical eye for goal too.

His phlegmatic, almost frivolous personality makes him more terrifying. He jokes about the secret goal he’s set for this season. He’s not a self-motivated self-taught: he scores goals in record numbers apparently because he finds it fun. He plays soccer as the developer early in year eight, and as such finds the game almost ridiculously easy. In the history of the sport, there have only been a small handful of forwards who have combined such physical and technical prowess.

There was Bernabé Ferreyra, the Argentine nicknamed the Rufino Mortar because of the power of his shot. When River Plate signed him from Tigre for £23,000 in 1932, it was the first time a club from outside Britain had held the world transfer record. There was Brazilian Ronaldo, who scored a goal a game even in the relatively defensive 90s before knee injuries crippled his explosive acceleration. And there was Eduard Streltsov.

Streltsov is now best known as the brilliant young forward for Torpedo Moscow who was arrested on the eve of the 1958 World Cup, convicted of rape and jailed for six years before winning the league again. His time in the gulag and various attempts to clear his name understandably dominate the discussion about him, but his career also throws up revealing tactical issues.

In the Dynamo Kyiv of the following decade, Viktor Maslov would invent the modern notions of pressing. His ideas had not reached that point when he was reappointed to the Torpedo in 1957, but he was already thinking of the team as an integrated unit, aware of how the actions of one player on one part of the field can have profound tactical implications. in other parts.

He recognized Streltsov’s immense talent, but never seemed as awed as the others. In part, that was probably because he recognized early how dangerous his wild streak could be, and at times seems to have lost patience with his star in the difficult months between his 1956 Olympic success and the player’s arrest. . But it is also possible to trace tactical doubts and it was only after Streltsov was jailed that Maslov led Torpedo to their first league title in 1960.

When Streltsov returned from the gulag, he was a different player. His rhythm was gone and he would fall deeper. A striker who had been defined by his power began to talk about preferring shots that went slowly over the line to those that crashed into the net. Physically handicapped, he had to learn a new way of playing and, to some extent, he did well enough to help Torpedo to their second Soviet title in 1965.

But the game had changed, and he couldn’t change enough to adjust to this new world of systems and responsibility. Streltsov won individual awards for still doing flashy things (and for the power of the narrative of the player who had returned from the gulag to resume his career) but clearly frustrated Nikolai Morozov, part of the great Torpedo tradition of thoughtful and innovative coaches who had given his debut as a 16-year-old in 1954 and they returned to the club in 1967. Notably, as national coach, Morozov did not try to get Streltsov cleared to play in the 1966 World Cup.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that since soccer became a systems game in the 1960s, even players with great individual, physical, and technical gifts can be detrimental to a systems-based team.

Ronaldo didn’t win a national league title until 2002. Ruud van Nistelrooy scored roughly two goals every three games over five seasons for Manchester United, but won just one championship in that time. Late-era Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in three seasons at Juventus and one at United, while he made the team worse.

There is a feeling that Haaland’s goals may be slowing down, though such statements are relative: would anyone else have spoken of the 333 minutes between his goals against Everton and Tottenham as a drought? He is still on course to erase the Premier League goalscoring record for a season.

However, City as a whole, at mid-season, have scored 50 goals and conceded 20; in all of last season they totaled 99 and 26. The addition of Haaland, the great goalscorer, has hardly changed his statistics of goals per game scored, although it apparently has an adverse effect on goals conceded.

Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus
Late-era Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in three seasons at Juventus and one at Manchester United, while making the team worse. Photo: Peter Powell/EPA

And that is not all. Haaland had 20 touches against Manchester United last Sunday. When City beat United at Old Trafford last season, no City player was under 71. Pep Guardiola’s football has always been about control through possession. Haaland demands direct early passes that go against Guardiola’s penchant for building slowly to establish a base to counter a potential counter-attack, and his lack of involvement in the overall game means, in effect, trying to establish that stifling dominance characteristic of the ball with a man less. .

There was a moment during the second part where last saturday’s derby when, with play stopped, Guardiola, encroaching on the pitch, yelled at Haaland, apparently gesturing for him to drop deeper. Haaland’s body language suggested a teenager being told to tidy up his room, though there were a couple of occasions when he leaned back and, Harry Kane-style, turned to play passes to advancing players outside the box. he.

Which is not to say that Haaland can’t succeed at City. A tension between two opposing visions can be creative. In fact, it may be that his incisiveness gives City the advantage in the kind of European tie they routinely lose. But there is a tendency in soccer to overemphasize the role of the goalscorer. Just because a striker is prolific, just because he’s obviously a great player, doesn’t mean he’s making the team better.

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