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Ken Early: Erling Haaland isn’t a beautiful footballer but he has the most important skill

Manchester City striker’s all-round game isn’t great but he is still the top scorer in the Premier League

Can you believe it’s only two weeks since everyone was sniggering about Erling Haaland being compared to a League Two player by Roy Keane?

“The level of his general play is so poor and not just today . . . He’s almost like a League Two player, that’s how I look at him . . . Being a brilliant striker is fantastic, but he has to improve his all-round game,” Keane said after Manchester City drew 0-0 with Arsenal.

It was true that Haaland didn’t have his best game that day. Afterwards he posted on Instagram pictures of him being manhandled by Gabriel Magalhães, which gave you a sense of what he thought had been going wrong for him out on the field. The pundits overlooked all that to pour scorn on his substandard skills.

We all know what Keane was getting at. Haaland isn’t a beautiful footballer like Kylian Mbappé or either of the Ronaldos. He could spend hours every day for the rest of his career working on his technique and never get close to being like them.


The question is: who cares? Ever since he turned professional Haaland has been scoring goals at a pace nobody his age has ever scored them, not Mbappé, not Cristiano Ronaldo, not even Lionel Messi. He can only do one thing really well, it just happens to be the most important skill in the game.

Keane’s criticism might not affect Haaland in the sense of shaking his confidence but it would certainly annoy him. Players are acutely aware of what people are saying about them. This was, after all, the weekend in which Alejandro Garnacho made headlines by liking posts by Mark Goldbridge in which the Manchester United YouTuber suggested Garnacho had been harshly treated by Erik ten Hag.

With Haaland under fire for perhaps the first time in his career, it was touching to see the players of other leading Premier League clubs offering support to the embattled Norwegian by showing the sceptical world that scoring simple chances really isn’t that simple.

Last week Darwin Nuñez’s stuttering form caused a proliferation of social media clips compiling some of his best misses of the season. What impresses you watching these compilations is the way he has every type of miss in his locker: free headers, one-on-ones, open-goal tap-ins, penalties. People had often suggested Darwin was likely to miss “when he had too much time to think” but this body of work proves he is a miss-artist of stunning completeness and range.

He produced another huge miss in Liverpool’s 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace yesterday, but this time his team-mates seemed determined to match him: Curtis Jones, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota all producing spectacular misses when they looked odds-on to score. Not to be outdone, Jean-Philippe Mateta sent solidarity to Haaland from the forwards of Palace by blasting straight at Alisson from inside the six-yard box.

With Liverpool’s title challenge in tatters it was over to Arsenal, whose coach Mikel Arteta had made some changes to his attack, including supersub Leandro Trossard in the starting line-up and moving Kai Havertz back into midfield with Jorginho dropping to the bench.

Havertz has recently enjoyed relative success in a central attacking role after struggling to fit into the midfield during the first half of the season. The Arsenal fans responded to early criticism of his performances by making a kind of cult figure out of him, much as Liverpool fans have with Nuñez. The fans’ response has something to do with the social media dynamics of modern fandom, where everyone is forever owning or being owned.

Unfortunately, performative hero-worship alone cannot transform a cult figure into a really decisive player.

You might generously describe Havertz as an all-rounder. He is an in-between kind of player who scores quite a lot for a midfielder but not a lot for a forward, and gets quite a lot of touches for a forward but not a lot for a midfielder. He is a floaty player who likes to get on the end of moves rather than the type who consistently makes things happen for his team.

It is still not quite clear why Arteta paid £65 million for the chance to see if he could unlock Havertz’s supposed potential – couldn’t that have been someone else’s problem? – but having argued for the signing the manager is determined to see him succeed.

Havertz had some of Arsenal’s better moments in the first half – ghosting through from deep midfield positions as Gabriel Jesus dropped backwards in tandem – without ever looking particularly menacing. It was Trossard, the player with the best goals-per-minute ratio at the club, who missed the best chance of the first half, shooting straight at Emiliano Martinez from six yards with two-thirds of the goal open.

Villa got wise to Havertz’ movements and Arsenal’s chances dried up in the second half. The best set-piece team in the Premier League conceded in the 84th minute following a Villa corner, and in the 87th minute from a counterattack following their own corner.

You wonder what old League Two was making of it all. Haaland had forced Manchester City’s opening goal on Saturday, charging into Luton’s penalty area then volleying the ball in off Daiki Hashioka’s face. Not a beautiful goal, but the feeling of taking the lead after two minutes in these tense run-in games is beautiful. Later he scored his 20th of the season from the penalty spot. It was the goal that made the game safe.

Haaland has missed a quarter of City’s games through injury but he is still the top scorer in the league. His five assists doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that two of the Premier League’s most gifted creative midfielders, Martin Ødegaard and Bruno Fernandes, have six each, while Bernardo Silva has four.

Maybe his all-round game isn’t great, but every other forward in the world would love to have what he has. If Arsenal had the one-dimensional Haaland instead of the all-rounder Havertz, how many points clear would they be today?