Ex-pros analysing goals on TV like to say, “for any young players out there, just watch this...” They’ll usually focus on some trick of movement or detail of technique. But if you want to know how Erling Haaland scored the first goal of his hat-trick against Manchester United yesterday just look at his face.
The first thing you notice is that Haaland locks on to the flight of the ball the instant it leaves Kevin De Bruyne’s boot by the corner flag, and his eyes stay locked on it until the moment he gets his head to it. In the time the ball takes to travel from flag to forehead he has brushed Christian Eriksen out of the way, stepped past Diogo Dalot and, cheeks blowing out with the fierce effort of the jump, launched himself above Scott McTominay, who is jumping from a standing start and can’t possibly compete. You can argue the details of where United’s defensive set-up went wrong, but when you see the absolute conviction with which Haaland attacked that ball it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have beaten him to it.
It was a revealing moment because while Haaland’s advantages of speed, size and strength are obvious, this goal demonstrated how much of his goalscoring ability is in the mind, how much of it is about his will, focus and determination to get to the ball first.
Three minutes later he did it again. The remarkable thing about his second goal was the reaction – or rather the initial non-reaction – of the crowd. Most of the time crowds can see what is about to happen, and when a goal is scored by an unmarked player knocking in a cross at the back post you will generally hear the fans celebrating before the ball has even reached their man. But as De Bruyne played that diagonal cross towards the far post you could hear by the absence of any pre-roar that the City fans didn’t see the goal coming. They could see Haaland trying to get there – but the goal just didn’t look on.
They had reckoned without two things: the quality of De Bruyne’s deliveries, which can still surprise them after seven years, and Haaland’s incredible ability to hurl himself forward and reach the ball by whatever means necessary. The pass swerved, Haaland took flight, and the ball was in the net before anyone realised what had happened.
That ability to launch themselves at the ball like a bullet is an attribute of many of the great goalscorers – Denis Law had it, Gary Lineker had it, Michael Owen had it. But can anyone remember seeing it before in a guy this size?
Watching Haaland right now is like watching Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup – an unprecedented and unanswerable talent who is making what is supposed to be impossible look easy. Seventeen goals in his first 10 games? Three home hat-tricks in a row? This is absurd. The Premier League is Mike Catt and Haaland is trampling over the top of it. He is even scoring with his head, which he wasn’t supposed to be any good at. Three of the 17 goals have been headers: 17 per cent. If you ask people to name the best attacking header of a ball they’ve ever seen, most will say Cristiano Ronaldo. Of his 662 goals for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, 104 were headers: 15.7 per cent.
Just as well that Haaland is giving us something exciting to talk about, because the big pattern of the season is crushingly familiar. After five years of near-total domination under Guardiola, interrupted only by exceptional overperformance from Liverpool, Manchester City have taken the gloves off. From now on it’s no more Mr Nice Guy. Arsenal may be top of the league at this moment but they know they’re playing for second place, along with everyone else.
Once again the trillionaires of Abu Dhabi have delivered a masterclass in how to run a football club. Once again everyone else is invited to look on and admire City’s example – although without a trillionaire owner of their own it’s hard to see how they can actually emulate it.
To raise this point may seem odd when the team City have just beaten are Manchester United, the only English team who can arguably compete with them in economic terms. United spent £238 million on new players over the summer, a record for a Premier League club; City, by comparison, made a profit. Sky produced a graphic before the game saying that since 2013, when Alex Ferguson retired, United had spent £1.43 billion on transfers, compared to City’s £1.38 billion.
The logic of this argument is that if only United were “well-run” like City instead of incompetent and wasteful they could be the serial champions. But the focus on headline transfer spending misses the fundamental difference between these two organisations. At City, money is just a means to an end – a tool, a resource, which fortunately happens to be in virtually limitless supply. At United money is the end, not the means. City’s owners will spend whatever it takes. United’s will spend as little as they think they can get away with. Remember there had to be a popular insurrection before the Glazers realised it might be time to put a lick of paint on the stadium, and now imagine how that attitude conditions the club from top to bottom.
It was noteworthy that for what was a historic scoreline the emotions were curiously routine. Since football has become a proxy battleground for the glory-hunting of Middle Eastern royalty, it means less. After Anthony Martial scored the late 6-2, some City fans responded with sarcastic cheers. This wasn’t really a contest, it was a joke. City versus the Premier League is not a fair fight, which might be why this United generation seemed somewhat less shattered than their predecessors who had been through a similar experience.
Alex Ferguson wrote in Managing My Life that when City beat United 5-1 at Maine Road in 1989, “I went straight home, got into bed, and put the pillow over my head . . . A sense of guilt had engulfed me.” (Guilt! Ferguson! This is one of three mentions of the concept of guilt in 500 pages, and the sole instance where Ferguson feels the guilt is actually justified.)
Compare that to Erik ten Hag’s description of yesterday’s result as “normal in our process... we will have setbacks during that process, we have to learn from it.” While Ferguson described the 5-1 as the most embarrassing defeat of his career, Ten Hag did not seem personally embarrassed in the slightest. This, he explained with the matter-of-fact air of a mechanic explaining why your car broke down, is just what happens against a team like City when you don’t show enough belief and fail from the outset to get on the front foot.
Maybe he’s been hardened by experience – after all it wasn’t even the first time this season that his team have been 4-0 down at half time. But when conceding six goals in a derby is not enough to reduce a manager to a hollow-eyed shell of a man, we have to admit something precious has been lost.