How big a problem is Haaland’s form for Man City?

Is Erling Haaland becoming a problem for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola?

That seems a ludicrous question to ask with the team top of the Premier League and Haaland top of the scoring charts.

But City’s exit to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals and Haaland’s few touches and failure to find the net in that tie has raised the uncomfortable question of whether the team play better when their line is led by a false nine rather than arguably the best No 9 in the world, who set a new Premier League goalscoring record (36) in his first season.

It follows criticism a few weeks ago from Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane, following City’s 0-0 draw with Premier League title rivals Arsenal. “In front of goal he’s the best in the world, but his general play for such a player – it is so poor. Not just today. He has to improve that,” said Keane.

“He’s almost like a League Two player – that’s the way I look at him. His general play has to improve. It will do over the next few years. [He’s a] brilliant striker but he has to improve his overall game.”

Erling Haaland's record vs Real Madrid
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Erling Haaland’s record vs Real Madrid with Man City

City’s exceptional display in the recent 4-1 thrashing of Aston Villa without their big man was a reminder of what they can do in his absence.

Here we take a look at the debate, with the views of Guardiola and Sky Sports‘ Paul Merson – and what the stats say…

Follow coverage of Manchester City vs Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday on the Sky Sports website and App.

Guardiola: Haaland contributes even when he isn’t scoring

Unsurprisingly, Guardiola is standing by his main striker.

In the wake of the Keane quotes, he said of Haaland: “He’s the best striker in the world and he helped us win what we won last season. The reason why we didn’t create many chances [vs Arsenal] was not Erling, it’s that we need more presence in the final third with more people. Erling is exceptional.

Sometimes he misses, sometimes lack of supply, sometimes instructions from the managers, sometimes the opponent is really good. In football there is not just one reason, there are many. Football is a team sport, it’s not individual like golf or tennis.”

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola explains why Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne were subbed off against Real Madrid

Guardiola again downplayed criticism of the Norwegian after the first leg of the Champions League tie against Real Madrid, saying: “We scored four goals, four goals, three goals in the last three games, 11 goals in three games. And [Haaland] helped us score some of them [by] creating lots of spaces for the other ones to score the goals.”

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The Football Show panel look at Erling Haaland’s recent spell in front of goal and debate his importance to Pep Guardiola’s team

Merson: Teams have worked out how to defend against Haaland

However, Sky Sports’ Paul Merson believes opposition sides have worked out how to limit Haaland and his presence in a traditional No 9 role is affecting the space available to City’s other attacking players.

“Teams are catching onto Man City and the threat of Haaland now. They know that they just have to sit deep now. Teams just sit in. We have some of the top managers in the world managing in the Premier League. They are shrewd and have come up with a plan to stop him now.

“Last year, Haaland was getting in behind at times and getting in one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Teams now know he’s lighting quick, and they don’t give him that space to run into. If you do, he will destroy you.

“Teams just close things up now and he needs to find a different option.

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“You obviously can’t knock Haaland. His goal record is phenomenal but against Real Madrid, he was virtually marked out of the game. For the opposition, they can virtually say it’s 10 vs 10. Antonio Rudiger had Haaland covered. He had him in his pocket for the two games just as William Saliba and Gabriel did for Arsenal at the Etihad.

“The thing is, if things aren’t working for Haaland, it’s not like he can start dropping into the pocket like a Julian Alvarez can do or what a Phil Foden could bring in that false forward position.

“If one of those drop into the hole, what’s Rudiger going to do then? He wouldn’t know whether to stay or go and that brings uncertainty for the opposition against City. That’s what’s lacking for City.

“The wide players in Jack Grealish and Phil Foden can’t go from out to in with Haaland central.

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“When City play they generally have 80 per cent of the ball. Any team that plays against them now just sit on the edge of the box.

“They need people that are going to drop off, find space or make a dart for the ball down the channel. They need a player who might be able to beat their man in the box and produce a moment of magic. Haaland is a different type of player.

“Haaland is an incredible goal scorer, but he doesn’t make Man City a better football team.

“When City were destroying teams, they were playing with a false nine.

“The false nine was dropping into midfield and they dominated that area of the field. It also created so much space for other players at the top end of the pitch.

“They would dominate the ball, their movement would be off the scale and they were moving the opposition players all over the place.

“With Haaland, he basically stands in the middle of the goal. He doesn’t really move anywhere and doesn’t move opposition players out of position.

“The movement has dried up for Man City. They aren’t moving teams around the pitch anymore.”

What do the stats say?

So, are City more effective with or without Haaland in the side?

The sample size isn’t huge, with Haaland missing seven games in the Premier League this season… but the stats suggest City are better without him!

Guardiola’s side have recorded a significantly higher win rate of 85.7 per cent without Haaland starting in the Premier League this term, compared with 64 per cent with him starting – and that ratio is almost identical across all competitions.

In fact, City are more effective across a raft of metrics when the striker does not appear in their starting line-up.

Haaland is top of the Premier League scoring charts but his underlying numbers have dropped off this season compared to last term.

Haaland scored a record-breaking 36 Premier League goals last season with a staggering, table-topping ratio of 1.2 per 90 minutes.

However, this term, Newcastle striker Alexander Isak and Chelsea forward Cole Palmer (both 0.86 goals per 90 minutes) edge the Norwegian’s strike ratio of 0.82.

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The 23-year-old still tops the rankings across a raft of key statistics, leading the charge for goals, expected goals and shots on target.

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But significantly there has been a reduction in his ruthlessness in front of goal – he has gone from exceeding his Expected Goals total substantially last season to underperforming in that metric this term.

There is also the element of how involved Haaland is when he’s not scoring goals.

The striker had just 21 touches against Real Madrid on Wednesday night. There were just 23 against Arsenal at the end of March. In the recent Premier League win at Crystal Palace he had just seven touches in the first half.

But he did eventually get on the scoresheet in that game at Selhurst Park. And with back-to-back golden boots within his grasp and City leading the way in the race for the title, the Haaland problem doesn’t appear to be one which overly concerns Guardiola going into the run-in…

Follow coverage of Manchester City vs Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday on the Sky Sports website and App.

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