Erling Haaland: Manchester City striker does not just score goals, he smells them too

Manchester City striker Erling Haaland has scored 12 goals in seven games

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‘A monster is coming to see you’ ran the headline of one local newspaper in Seville on the morning of Manchester City’s visit to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Erling Haaland has been called worse. A robot. An alien. A freak. You name it. None of them sound particularly flattering to the uninitiated but watch him play and you know they are meant as compliments. Each of them in some way captures his strange, supernatural and almost inhuman abilities as a striker.

‘Monster’, in particular, carries its own connotations: of fear, of terror, of something devouring everything in its path. Given Haaland arrived in Spain with 10 goals in his first six competitive games for City, it’s not hard to see why the newspaper’s editors thought it appropriate.

And yet after another pair of Haaland goals in a comfortable 4-0 victory, with City thrashing Group G’s second seeds in their own backyard, you struggled to pick out any single moment when Sevilla had been truly monstered as such.

That may be because for all of Haaland’s raw power, speed and strength – which are certainly the most immediately striking aspects of his game – he is equally capable of killing off opponents with the more cerebral parts of what it takes to be an elite centre-forward.

His goals against Sevilla were not scored by brute force or after gobbling up an defence, but by being in the right place at the right time to apply the right finish.

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Guardiola has in the past talked about how strikers do not simply score goals but ‘smell’ them, often accompanying this claim by clasping his thumb, index finger and middle finger in front of his nose, like a wine sommelier who is getting notes of peach and honeysuckle. “The striker’s nose, the anticipation, the intuition to know where the ball is one second before it arrives,” he said in one of his more animated flash interviews, shortly after a Ferran Torres hat-trick at St James’ Park last year. “He has this talent,” he said of Torres.

Haaland has it too. His first against Sevilla proved that much, but then this goal was not dissimilar from the one scored at Villa Park at the weekend. Again, it came unmarked at the far post, following in a Kevin De Bruyne cross from the right. What is astonishing about the goal though is that despite the hype, despite the attention, despite the warning on the front of that morning’s newspapers, his marker Jose Angel Carmona has no idea how he has suddenly lost Haaland in the split-second between De Bruyne’s cross and its conversion.

Watching the clip back still might not help Carmona. One second, Haaland is strolling at a walking pace, and even looks like he has time to remonstrate with Bernardo Silva about passing elsewhere. There is no apparent danger until Phil Foden slips De Bruyne in behind Sevilla’s defence and towards the byline, at which point Haaland accelerates and clear. Foden’s pass and De Bruyne’s run are a trigger. Haaland has smelt the goal and by that point, for Carmona, it is already too late.

If defenders are not picking up on Haaland’s speed of thought and intelligence of movement, at least his team-mates are. A reverse angle from the other side of the pitch caught De Bruyne looking up towards the far post while still running onto Foden’s pass. He was already searching for Haaland, already expecting his run. Perhaps that is a product of Guardiola’s highly-structured positional play. Perhaps it is evidence of a growing understanding. Perhaps it is both. “I know one way or another Erling will be there,” De Bruyne said. “At the moment he’s scoring the goals. For him it’s a perfect start.”

Haaland’s second was different, displaying both sides of his supreme abilities as a striker. The move began with a powerful, diagonal burst across and through the midfield, from right to left, then a lay-off to Foden. As soon as the ball leaves Haaland’s feet, he changes the angle of his run and heads straight for goal. When the pass does not arrive, he checks himself to stay onside, simultaneously pulling away from Sevilla’s ball-watching defence. Then goalkeeper Bono parries Foden’s shot, leaving an unmarked Haaland to follow in the rebound.

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Through a few shifts in movement, and a constant awareness of his positioning in relation to the goal and Sevilla’s defence, he went from the subject of everyone’s attention  to unmarked with an empty net to aim at. It is such exemplary centre-forward play that Guardiola is not getting bored of being asked about it. “I love this routine and it’s been a routine in every single press conference after games talking about him and his goals,” he said. “Hopefully he can continue this routine.”

There is every chance he does. “The numbers speak for themselves,” Guardiola said of a 22-year-old who has now scored 25 Champions League goals in just 20 appearances. “It’s not just the two goals, it’s always he’s there, always he’s there. It’s always the feeling that he could score more.” He could, and in a variety of different ways. Some strikers rely on power. Others rely on instinct. Haaland relies on neither and trades on both. He is a monster, an alien, a freak and all the above, and whether he is spilling blood or smelling it, he is going to keep scoring.

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