Champions League impact, not domestic dominance, is why Man City went for Haaland
Pep Guardiola does not like predicting the future.
Before a ball had been kicked this season, Manchester City's manager refused to solidify his team and Liverpool as favourites to push for the Premier League title again.
Based on Liverpool's underwhelming start to the campaign, perhaps Guardiola was right to hold off, and the City boss kept to the same tactic on Tuesday when asked if Erling Haaland – who has scored 12 goals in eight games in all competitions this season – could be the difference when it comes to the Citizens finally ending their wait for Champions League glory.
"I'm not able to know it," Guardiola said bluntly ahead of City's meeting with Haaland's former club Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday. "The team is playing well, so is he. But right now I don't know."
Where his manager had remained on the fence, Ilkay Gundogan – another former Dortmund star – was a little more forthcoming.
"We hope for it," City's captain told reporters when asked the same question. "Obviously having a proper number nine, proper striker, physically strong, determined is going to help us a lot, but we will see.
"Winning the Champions League is something incredible to achieve, a very tough competition; it's never easy and little details can decide the outcome. We'll try as hard as we can to go as far as possible."
Haaland's start to life in the Premier League has been nothing short of outrageous. He has netted 10 goals in six appearances, the joint-fastest player in the history of the competition to reach that tally, alongside Micky Quinn back in 1992.
The 22-year-old wasted little time in transferring his domestic form to the European stage, too, scoring a double in City's 4-0 victory over Sevilla last week, and it is in the Champions League, not the Premier League, where City really need him to make the difference.
Only 36 players in Champions League history have scored more goals in the competition than Haaland, who has 25 from his 20 appearances in UEFA's flagship club tournament.
He is the first City player to score on both his Premier League and Champions League debuts for the club and the fourth player in the competition's history to score in his first appearance for three different teams (Salzburg, Dortmund and City), after Fernando Morientes, Javier Saviola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Haaland's tally is the most by any player from their first 20 Champions League games, and should he score against Dortmund, he will be the second player to net in the competition both for and against the Bundesliga giants, after Ciro Immobile.
It was this kind of form that attracted City, who missed out on signing Harry Kane in 2021.
With Sergio Aguero's availability becoming more limited as his time at City drew to a close, Guardiola enjoyed success without having to rely on a traditional striker.
Although he enthused about Gabriel Jesus, who has made a blistering start at Arsenal, the Brazil international was often used out wide in the previous two campaigns, with Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling (now at Chelsea) and even Jack Grealish all filling in, at times, as a 'false nine' in Guardiola's fluid attack.
City won the league last season and the one before that. Indeed, four of the last five English titles have gone the way of Guardiola's side, and with or without Haaland, you'd have been brave to bet against them retaining the trophy this season.
Yet they have repeatedly fallen short in Europe. Having lost 1-0 to Chelsea – a team also utilising a false nine system – in the 2020-21 final, City last season had a plethora of chances to put their semi-final tie with Real Madrid to bed, only to lose after a remarkable comeback from Los Blancos in the second leg.
In Haaland, they have a player who should right those wrongs.
With De Bruyne, Silva, Foden and Co. providing the opportunities, Haaland was always bound to score, but his finishing has already exceeded expectations.
His 12 goals have come from shots with a cumulative expected goals (xG) value of 9.4. Essentially, he has scored close to three more goals than he would have been expected to, given the quality of chances he has been presented with.
Not that those opportunities have been particularly difficult ones, of course.
All of Haaland's 12 goals have come from 'big chances' – defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score.
No other player in Europe's top five leagues has had as many 'big chances' as Haaland, who has had 20 come his way including the Community Shield match against Liverpool in July. Neymar, who is flying high at Paris Saint-Germain, ranks second with 14. More evidence, perhaps, that he is the final piece of the puzzle in this incredibly creative City side. The player to see them over the line when push comes to shove.
City's top scorer in Europe last season was Gabriel Jesus, with four goals from six appearances. Haaland managed three in three, with injury limiting his minutes. Since he made his Champions League debut, for Salzburg in September 2019, only Robert Lewandowski (33) and Karim Benzema (26) have scored more goals in the competition. Both of those players have won the trophy in that time.
Guardiola might rightly refuse to predict the future, but one thing is for certain – with Haaland, City's chances of finally ending their wait for European glory look better than ever.
That is just what they bought him for.