Crit­ics are unfair to him.

It is dif­fi­cult to enter the cohort of the best, but it is even more dif­fi­cult to stay in it. This sea­son is a test of strength for Erling Haa­land. Is he wor­thy of being con­sid­ered the main play­er of the new gen­er­a­tion, or have we over­rat­ed him after a mon­ster first sea­son in a Man­ches­ter City shirt?

Some, like William Gal­las, lean towards the sec­ond option: “I don’t think Erling Haa­land is the same as before. “His play, his dri­ve, his dri­ve — he’s not the inde­struc­tible Haa­land we saw at Man­ches­ter City last year.”

The state­ment is con­tro­ver­sial, so let’s raise the sta­tis­tics and check whether the Nor­we­gian’s play has real­ly wors­ened this sea­son?

Erling missed two months, but is still among the top scorers in the Premier League

To be fair, it’s not just Haa­land who gets it, but the whole of City. And this is under­stand­able: after the incred­i­ble 2022/23 sea­son, in which the tre­ble was won, Guardi­o­la’s team is expect­ed to per­form at the same lev­el. Hence the talk that the “cit­i­zens” have seri­ous­ly slowed down com­pared to last year: win­ning the Pre­mier League is now tak­en for grant­ed, but, as luck would have it, “Arse­nal” and “Liv­er­pool” are in top form and are over­tak­ing the Man­ches­ter giants .

If we take foot­ball play­ers, then Erling has the most com­plaints. In his debut sea­son in Eng­land, the Nor­we­gian broke the record for goals in the cham­pi­onship (35 goals) and scored anoth­er 12 in the Cham­pi­ons League (although five of them came in the 1/8 finals match with Leipzig). After this, it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to meet the high expec­ta­tions of fans and experts.

How Man­ches­ter Unit­ed missed Haa­land. They refused to pay 20 mil­lion euros and then for­got about time zones

But let’s look at the basic sta­tis­tics of the cur­rent sea­son. Erling has 29 goals in 34 match­es in all com­pe­ti­tions: 18 goals in 23 Pre­mier League games, six goals in sev­en Cham­pi­ons League meet­ings, and anoth­er pen­ta-trick against Luton in the FA Cup. Haa­land aver­ages a goal every 98 min­utes (up from 79 last sea­son), a fig­ure bet­ter than Ronal­do, Lau­taro, Salah and Lewandows­ki. Only the crazy Kane, Mbappe from the cheat­ing PSG and the sen­sa­tion­al Guiras­si have bet­ter results.

Can any­one score against Luton? Okay, let’s look at the Nor­we­gian’s per­for­mance against top oppo­nents. Haa­land has 3+1 against Unit­ed, 2+1 against Chelsea, a goal each against Liv­er­pool and Leipzig. That is, the Nor­we­gian wor­ries not only the mid­dle peas­ants and out­siders.

Com­pared to last sea­son, Erling scored 26 goals in the first 23 Pre­mier League match­es. Indeed, there is a decline, but again only by the fan­tas­tic stan­dards of the strik­er him­self. With 18 goals, Haa­land is the leader of the scor­ing race and is two goals ahead of his clos­est pur­suer. At the same time, the strik­er was out of the line­up for two months due to injury, miss­ing 12 match­es from Decem­ber to Feb­ru­ary — that’s five rounds of the Pre­mier League.

Raphael Varan and Erling Haa­land.
Pho­to by Reuters

Haaland has really declined compared to last season, but he’s still top

We got acquaint­ed with the basic sta­tis­tics. But it can be decep­tive — per­haps Erling real­ly lost a lot in the game.

In a gen­er­al sense, this can be judged by xG. The rule of top for­wards is that they always score more than expect­ed. For four sea­sons in a row, Haa­land scored three or four more goals than the sta­tis­tics pre­dict­ed — this year is dif­fer­ent. Expect­ed goals stats from Under­stat show that Erling would ide­al­ly have scored a min­i­mum of 22 goals. He has 18 real ones.

It may seem that most of the missed chances came in the post-injury peri­od, but this is not the case: in eight games, Erling missed just 1.66 xG. You may remem­ber Haa­land’s miss on an emp­ty net against Man­ches­ter Unit­ed or the parade of mis­takes against Chelsea (he did­n’t score on 1.74 xG). But a sim­i­lar night­mare has hap­pened before. For exam­ple, in Decem­ber against Tot­ten­ham (0.84 xG) or Aston Vil­la (1.00 xG), the Nor­we­gian was unable to score, although he had a lot of chances.

Haa­land returned, Brazil­ian tal­ent made Xavi and Barcelona hap­py, Wern­er flour­ished at Tot­ten­ham

One could say that the old Erling would not have allowed this, but no. Last sea­son, a sim­i­lar thing hap­pened against Leeds (1.37 xG) and Not­ting­ham For­est (1.07 xG) — in both cas­es the for­ward also failed to score.

And yet there is a decline in Haa­land’s game. The goalscor­er aver­ages 4.07 shots on goal per league game, a record since mov­ing to Borus­sia Dort­mund. But he con­verts his chances notice­ably worse: on aver­age, the Nor­we­gian needs 4.8 shots to score. Last sea­son he had 3.2 hits; in the last sea­son for Borus­sia — 3.3. By com­par­i­son, the god­like Kane has required an aver­age of 3.7 shots per goal this sea­son.

But let’s say again that the same Kane plays in the mega-open Bun­desli­ga and has the best sea­son of his career. At the same time, Haa­land’s aver­age shot dis­tance has decreased: 10.5 meters to goal ver­sus 11.5 meters last sea­son. That is, he hits from more con­ve­nient posi­tions. More stats: Scores 0.84 goals per game (last sea­son: 1.14 goals), which is still the best in the entire league. Let’s note that the Nor­we­gian big man pass­es under attack more often (1.17 ver­sus 0.94).

So is Erling blown away or not?

No. Even Haa­land of this sea­son is a pow­er­ful threat for any defend­er. There are also things that are dif­fi­cult to explain with sta­tis­tics. Neu­tral­iz­ing Erling for many coach­es is a more impor­tant task than guard­ing the con­di­tion­al De Bruyne, Foden or Bernard. It is sig­nif­i­cant that in the recent Man­ches­ter der­by, Erik ten Hag ordered two defend­ers to mon­i­tor the forward’s move­ment.

For greater clar­i­ty, let us remem­ber the words of Vir­gil van Dijk after the 2022 FA Super Cup. The match was Haa­land’s first in a City shirt — he missed a few chances but still put the Dutch giant on edge: “Obvi­ous­ly Haa­land has a lot of qual­i­ties that can make life dif­fi­cult for defend­ers. He will make life mis­er­able for defend­ers in Eng­land!”

Erlin Haa­land: biog­ra­phy of a Nor­we­gian foot­ball play­er

Vir­gil was right. Erling wins not only with his effi­cien­cy: with his size and author­i­ty, he cap­tures the atten­tion of the entire opponent’s defense, makes them ner­vous and frees up space for his part­ners, break­ing the defen­sive lines with move­ment. The point is that Haa­land is not the usu­al post for kick­ers — he sim­ply can­not stay in one place and wan­ders through­out the entire third of the oppo­nent.

The most impor­tant thing is that Guardi­o­la and Haa­land him­self under­stand this. The first one per­sis­tent­ly choos­es Erling, despite the temp­ta­tion to put Alvarez or Foden as a “false nine”, and the sec­ond one doesn’t wor­ry about the miss­es at all: “I missed, missed a lot of chances. Per­haps in the future I will miss anoth­er big moment and peo­ple will crit­i­cize me. Do I need to think about this? No”.