Four games into the Premier League season, it’s clear Manchester City and Erling Haaland have still yet to fully click. It’s almost like a ballet troupe hired as its lead performer a dancer whose only experience is in breakdancing; the team moves at one pace and Haaland another. An adaptation period was inevitable, and you have to imagine that as everyone becomes more familiar with each other, the disparate parts will eventually sync up and Man City will really get going. Which is just about the scariest conceivable thought, since even while slightly out of step with his teammates, Haaland is still trampling all comers.
Has Haaland played a single complete, well-rounded game so far this season? I kind of think the answer is no. For large stretches of every match it appears that Haaland doesn’t quite know how to integrate himself into what his teammates are doing, nor do most of his teammates know how to play at the Norwegian’s preferred rhythms. (Unsurprisingly, Kevin De Bruyne is the one who already gets it.) You can see it in how rarely Haaland directly contributes to the game. So far he’s averaging just over 23 touches per 90 minutes, down from the about 31 touches he averaged at Borussia Dortmund, for a Man City that averages about 10 percent more possession than his old Dortmund teams. (All stats via Football Reference.) Haaland’s game has never been about his volume of on-ball actions—even 31 touches is notably low for your typical elite striker. But the drop in his contributions, coupled with how infrequent it is that someone will take advantage of his biggest strength by sending him hurtling after a ball into open space, is evidence that City hasn’t yet figured out how to get the most of their newest superstar.
The thing is, none of that has really mattered. Take Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace for example. Palace took advantage of two poorly defended set-pieces to get out to a 2–0 lead after just 21 minutes of play. Haaland spent most of the game sort of on the periphery of the action, touching the ball only 18 times, fewer than every other starter on the pitch save Palace wing back Tyrick Mitchell, who came off injured after 57 minutes. Nevertheless, seven of Haaland’s 18 touches were shots, and three of those shots were goals. His hat trick powered City to a statement-making 4–2 comeback victory.
For the season, Haaland has just 85 total touches, but he leads the Premier League in shots (18) and goals (6). And though he doesn’t drop down and knock the ball about the way you typically expect Pep Guardiola strikers to, he does help the team’s play even without intervening himself. His scoring reputation makes panicked defensive lines focus the majority of their attention on trying to contain him, which leaves fewer eyes and legs to track the movements of the other Citizens. Similarly, the mere threat of his speed means that when Haaland so much as turns his head toward the opposing goal, defenses shrink back 10 yards deeper out of fear, which frees spaces in which City’s creators can drop in and fashion their attacks. Plus, there is the invaluable confidence that comes with knowing that no matter the time, place, or context, City is never far away from a goal or three so long as Haaland is out there.
Man City needs to get better, needs to more effectively blend its game with Haaland’s. Haaland’s skill set is too varied, and his impact when fully utilized is too great, for City to maintain this current pattern where Haaland is essentially a passenger in the action until the team gets into the penalty box, at which point Haaland can club the ball into the net. It would be a role less than Haaland deserves, and would create a team less good than it could be. And I do think City will get better at it, if only because Haaland forces the team to adapt by continuing to reward lumped-out through balls with goals.
But the best testament to his talent is what he’s doing right now, when he and City aren’t moving to the same groove and yet he’s still firing in goals for fun. This is the kind of player the Premier League has on its hands, one who is the best even when not at his best. And he’s only getting started.