why Guardiola may release Haaland against Arsenal

Waking up from a dream, exhausted by his studies, struggling, at the moment, to lead the force, Pep Guardiola looks up through the foggy cave and sees his arch-enemy Mikel Arteta striding towards him, light saber already unlaunched himself as he splits the air.

Pep jumps in fear, attacks and defeats his nemesis. Leaning forward, he stooped to see the human face of his fallen enemy. But looking through the hole in that shiny black plastic Lego hairpiece he sees instead: Pep Guardiola’s face.

Related: ‘I’m ashamed’: Guardiola apologizes to Gerrard for raising famous Anfield slip

Well, that’s one way it could have gone down. For much of this season it seems that five-time champions Guardiola’s challenge has been to drag his former pupil to the top of the table, while doing something else at the same time, absorbing the new tactical rhythms of Erling Haaland .

Restart culture, the seven-year itch, the struggle of a team that loves to pass to incorporate a great player whose major weakness is, essentially, not being very good at passing. A trip to face Arteta’s young side seemed like the perfect dramatization of that battle, an opportunity to confront the younger version of himself. This was to be the story of Wednesday’s top board meeting at the Emirates.

Except we have this. The Empire has hit back, in the form of a Premier League case against City’s owners. And Guardiola has some less abstract enemies to fight. There is also a way to see this as a footballing, tactical challenge, as well as an existential question, a conspiracy question, an opportunity to defeat the cartel and the rest of it. Perhaps these two threads are about to meet.

Sunday’s home win against Aston Villa felt different in more ways than one. The most obvious was the injection of defiant, defensive energy from the touchline and the stands, undoubtedly a very useful tool in the sport. But the change was tactical as well as textured. At times team mentality was falling into introspection, the danger of an extended version of overthinking, an unnecessarily complicated version of how to win against this fine team with Occam’s razor in play. This is the tactical equivalent of a Glock 45 pistol. See if you can knit a sweater with it.

Perhaps what Guardiola really needed was a more focused sense of danger, something that would distract him. And you have to give it to Pep. He knows how to whistle-blow a winning culture, from fine-tuning the style of football owned by generations to working the fringes on more than 100 charges of financial impropriety.

The press conference before the Villa game was very clear in its messages. Without compromise. No doubt. Me and you against the world. There was a chance to say, these are just fees, let’s see what happens. Instead, Guardiola chose to delve deep into conspiracy and victimhood, to summon a Trump-like appeal to the worst intellects of the tribe, to trash the idea that there might be something worth understanding here. A manager whose entire career has been devoted to trusting the process has a new message: don’t trust the process. Don’t trust the system. Let’s face it, if it’s simply to win your job, it’s a great tactic.

Erling Haaland attacks for Manchester City

Erling Haaland always affected the game against Aston Villa despite not having much to do with his threatening runs. Photo: Matt West/Shutterstock

The truth is that Pep hasn’t looked that energetic all season. There was talk of angst and entropy, body language stuff, sated ambition. How do you summon anger and will from a fixed start?

External confrontation is one way. The threat is no longer vague or internalized. Instead it is clear, present and agree. From here any kind of victory will look good. There’s really no better time to fill out the process and go full Haaland.

Spurs won when Haaland turned in a deep position and played a pass to Jack Grealish – the right pass, but probably not enough speed and fizz, which wasted a small slice of time and space. Guardiola threw up his hands and wheeled around, stopping just short of a full version of The Slump. He was right too. It came to nothing. But during that evening there was a temptation to wonder why Haaland was wandering into those spaces, trying to play as Pep’s striker, practicing the weakest and not the strongest parts of his game.

Against Villa, even City’s attacking structure looked different. Guardiola selected his best players, but there was clarity and urgency in their forward movements as well, City’s pace of running seemed focused on their clear attack.

Haaland touched the ball 26 times against Spurs, but still looked like he had little to do with it. Against Villa he had a touch in 45 minutes, but he always affected the game. His run was full of menace. He drove the Villa defense back towards his own goal. He made great runs and got early passes (interactions with Kevin De Bruyne were always good). He provided a great assist with one of his five passes. Doing all these things, basically just running towards the goal, Haaland is a defender’s nightmare rather than someone learning to speak Esperanto without his glasses on.

Related: The departure of Nathan Jones leaves us with the funniest manager in Premier League history | Jonathan Liew

Who knows, maybe this sudden force majeure, which adds a bit of external danger, is not the nudge Guardiola needs to see Haaland as a loaded gun. Before the Spurs game, he was still talking fondly about Haaland learning from Harry Kane. And it is natural that there will be some stutters and City will incorporate this phenomenon, 22 years old who can score 25 goals by February, but sometimes it also seems to muddle your methods. Is there a footballer who isn’t heavier anywhere in the world? Haaland has more goals in the top five leagues by far. He has also made five successful dribbles, two tackles and one long pass all season.

Over time, there was always a chance that Pep would find a way to adapt, to create a customized version. But Haaland’s best moments at City are the simplest: the chaos caused by his pace and presence when he plays right on the edge of attack, the need to repeatedly pass the ball into space right

Cahair may have moved away from there in recent weeks. Wednesday night, with the win in itself, against an opponent who keeps the ball and also pushes high, could be another case of taking the shortest route to victory.

Leave a comment