Haaland scores goals for Man City, so why all the criticism?

Striker Erling Haaland helped Manchester City achieve the treble last season and claimed the personal distinction of winning the Premier League Golden Boot. A year on, history looks set to repeat itself, but this time around the Norway international is doing it with criticism ringing in his ears.

Former Manchester United captain Roy Keane described Haaland as “League Two standard” following his ineffective performance in last month’s goalless draw against Arsenal at the Etihad, while former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said before the 5-1 win over Luton where he scored a penalty that the 23-year-old is a “world-class finisher but not a world-class player,” adding that he is the “ultimate luxury footballer.”

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But is that really what Haaland amounts to — little more than a throwback to the one-dimensional goal scorers of previous eras who did nothing other than put the ball in the net?

Despite netting 31 times in 38 games in all competitions so far, he has become an enigma at City this season. But perhaps that is only because he is being judged through the harshest of lenses as he scored 52 goals during his first campaign at the club last year. Those goals delivered City’s treble of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. At the same time, he erased Premier League greats Alan Shearer and Andy Cole from the record books (for most goals in a 42-game season) by scoring an unprecedented 36 times in the league.

Last week, in defence of Haaland from the comments of Keane and Carragher, City manager Pep Guardiola said: “Without him, it would not be possible,” when speaking of his contribution to the team’s success in England and Europe last season.

Despite spending almost two months on the sideline in December and January with a foot injury, Haaland is still leading the race to be this season’s top scorer in the Premier League with 20 goals, one clear of Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins, and City are the favourites to win each of the three competitions — Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League — that they continue to pursue. So another treble awaits.

But Haaland’s reputation has taken a battering recently because, by his incredible standards, he has failed to deliver in the biggest games for City and when he doesn’t score, he brings little else to the team, apart from creating space for his teammates by occupying defenders.

He was largely anonymous in the 0-0 draw against Arsenal, when defenders William Saliba and Gabriel combined to nullify his threat, while against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal last week, Haaland was so dominated by defender Antonio Rüdiger that he was restricted to just 20 touches in the whole game.

Counting Haaland’s touches has become something of an obsession for those wanting to identifying flaws in his game. Since the start of this season, he has amassed 740 touches in 34 games in the Premier League and Champions League for City. In comparison to Bayern Munich’s Harry Kane (1,295 touches, 38 league and UCL games) and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé (1,691 touches, 35 games), Haaland clearly has less involvement in the game.

A centre-forward’s touch count does not need to be high, however. Speaking on the “Stick to Football” podcast earlier this year, Wayne Rooney said he was told by former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal to have fewer touches during games.

“I remember him [Van Gaal] coming in and saying he wants his centre-forward to have 15, 20 touches a game — that’s exactly what Haaland does,” Rooney said. “But I always wanted to play and enjoy the game — and score goals.”

After scoring five goals in City’s 6-2 win at Luton in February, Guardiola praised not only Haaland’s goal-scoring contribution, but his touch count. “Today he scored five goals and I think he had 30-35 touches,” Guardiola said. “And this is what we are looking for.”

Kane and Mbappe bring more to their teams because they are different types of forward. Kane drops deep, creates space, and delivers long passes to teammates; Mbappe plays wide and cuts inside, thereby taking many more touches. Haaland is expected to be a focal point up front, occupy defenders in the central third of the pitch, and score goals.

In terms of output in domestic and Champions League games, Haaland has scored 26 goals at an xG of 30.16 this season, which while inferior to Kane (39 goals, 32.92 xG) and Mbappe (30 goals, 25.75 xG), as they have both outperformed their xG while Haaland hasn’t, is still an impressive return.

Yet with every negative, or area of criticism, there is evidence to counter it, such as the perception that he is less effective against the top teams. In three games against Real Madrid, Haaland has yet to score, while he has only managed two goals in six games against Arsenal. His return of three goals in seven games against Liverpool is only marginally better, but Haaland also has a career record of seven goals in nine games against Bayern Munich, which is more than respectable.

No team has conceded more goals against Haaland than the 12 in eight games he has scored against RB Leipzig, one of Germany’s most consistent sides and a regular Champions League competitor. No English team have been on the receiving end against Haaland more than Manchester United, who have conceded six times against him — the same number he has scored against Luton.

And although his penalty against Luton on Saturday took his tally to only two goals in his past six appearances, his recent lack of goals is not even his worst run for City. Last season, when he broke so many records and ended up with 52 goals, Haaland had periods when he scored twice in eight games and once in eight games.

Despite all the goals and trophies, Haaland is expected to do more. Perhaps the eras of Lionel Messi (828 goals in 1,055 games) and Cristiano Ronaldo (885 in 1,217), both of whom reinvented the role of an attacker, have set an impossibly high bar that even Haaland can’t reach.

Yet look at the trophies and try telling Manchester City and Guardiola that Haaland can do better.