Jaw-dropping Erling Haaland reduces football to its base unit with his goals
As the players left the pitch at half time, the Etihad Stadium’s in-house big screen began to replay, in slow-mo close-up, the moment that had just passed, Manchester City’s third goal in what would eventually become a 7-0 (seven) victory.
There was something ludicrously lovely about the imagery, the basic human design, the cold, cold beauty of the sky blue shirts, the snowflakes falling in slow, fat, perfect flakes, Erling Haaland scrolling past the faces in the crowd and gliding in a single movement into the perfect Olympic-grade knee slide, a footballer who expresses power, edge and certainty more clearly than any other.
He was, frankly, jaw-dropping here; unstoppable in a way that felt different to any other, previous version of unstoppable, sui generis in its outsize strengths. Haaland had just completed the perfect hat-trick, even if the right foot element involved the ball being punted into his leg and pinballing back over the goalline.
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No matter. We have more where that came from. When he left the pitch with 63 minutes gone Haaland had taken eight shots, all eight on target, scored five goals and completed 11 passes. Here is a footballer who seems to be reducing football to its base unit, a perfect piece of maths, a goalscoring super-conductor.
By the time his fifth hit the net on 57 minutes Haaland wasn’t really celebrating, just laughing, a man drowning in honey. It is easy to forget, seeing only his size, his power and certainty, that he is still a slightly goofy 22-year-old, that he has never won a major trophy, travels with his dad, has only ever known the pressure of being groomed for these moments. It is one of football’s indestructible qualities that even in the middle of this spectacle of power-football, power-play, Champions League muscle, it can retain these notes of innocence and fun.
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And so City rumble on into the quarter-finals. There was always an idea that Haaland would provide “that bit extra” in these high-stakes one-off games. Well, some progress there then. In reality this idea always seemed a bit off. He’s not a super sub. City’s entire system is still being re-geared to suit his skills, with all the referred complications that brings. This has been the challenge on both sides, to transform the world’s greatest one-liner into a novel.
With this in mind City’s second goal was significant for other reasons. They were 1-0 up thanks to a penalty that wasn’t just soft, but cashmere triple-quilted. This was performative video refereeing, the kind of handball that can only be avoided by having both arms bound behind your back with twine, or possibly sawn off at the shoulders. Haaland buried the kick as it started to snow.
The second, just after, involved a contribution from Kevin De Bruyne that might matter just as much from here. Haaland made it, pressing fiercely, then heading the loose ball into the path of De Bruyne, who spanked a wonderful dipping left foot shot on to the underside of the bar. Haaland was there again, for the third time in five seconds, to head it back into the net.
De Bruyne would add the seventh at the death, a ludicrously brilliant long-range air-burner. He is just so vital in this team, a counterpoint to the machine-drilled perfectionism, a footballer with his own deeper levels and gears, and the perfect complement to Haaland’s edge. He looked sharp here. The patterns were good. And there are two questions to ask at the end of a night like this.
Firstly, is it OK? This wasn’t just a stroll. It wasn’t any kind of contest. With 40 minutes still to play RB Leipzig had been zombified, heads dropping, shoulders slumped, utterly crushed. Leipzig are third in the Bundesliga, not far off the top. These are both project teams, one a buy-low marketing tool for a soft drink, the other a grand-scale monument to nation-state ambition. But this was a mismatch.
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City moved Leipzig around, stretched the lines at will, and did it all so easily, dissecting their opponents like a practice corpse on the laboratory gurney. And secondly, how far can City take this now? It was by no means a one-man show. City counter-pressed fiercely and resisted RB Leipzig’s physicality all over the pitch. Bernardo Silva was routinely brilliant, not really a defensive or attacking midfielder these days, just an all-round roving skill-goblin.
Haaland looked different too. There has been some talk of City as a more hard-headed machine now, less fun, less twinkly and feather-footed. And the Haaland that came to City was basically lethal at being lethal, even a little odd in an age of ever more complete and adaptable footballers. Haaland isn’t fluid or “polyvalent”. He doesn’t have strengths and weaknesses: he has super-strengths and don’t-cares.
But there was much more here than goals, as there was against Arsenal at the Emirates, a more rounded contribution, a greater energy from the front. City are evolving in real time, becoming something more complete. The real test will come against one of Europe’s elite, a question that hasn’t been asked yet, but then Europe’s elite is an ever-shrinking circle.
It will be fascinating to watch when it happens. But this was as close as City have come so far to marrying that sense of control and high technique with a razor edge. It was delicately, brutally unstoppable.