Newcastle lack weapons to exploit the Haaland Paradox as Man City keep pressure on Arsenal
Manchester City kept the pressure on against Arsenal at the top of the Premier League with an eventually comfortable win against a humdrum Newcastle United.
Were these the first signs of the steamroller finally starting to rumble to life? One of the key characteristics of Manchester City over the last few years has been their tendency to just embark upon these lengthy unbeaten runs during which their results become so predictable as to be hardly worth even looking up. The relentless becomes their playing style, not only within games but also across them. Two-nil down, three minutes to play plus stoppage-time? They’ll probably still win 4-2. They become a self-fulfilling prophecy when they’re playing like that.
But that has been curiously absent from their form this season. Manchester City have only won three successive Premier League games twice this season – no more – and they haven’t done that since the start of November. Perhaps this is The Haaland Paradox in action. The Haaland Paradox posits that Erling Haaland, for all his individual brilliance at scoring goals and the individual records he will break this season, doesn’t particularly improve Manchester City that much.
The Newcastle match was City’s 26th Premier League game of the season, and in those games they’ve scored 66 goals. But last season after 26 games, they’d scored 63. But they’ve conceded 25 goals rather than 17 and they’re five points worse off. Arsenal started their season with five straight wins and then won seven from nine up to the World Cup break. Failing to match that consistency has been the difference between the two teams, so far this season.
This makes sense. Last season, Manchester City ended with eight players scoring more than seven Premier League goals. This time around and with a third of the season left to play, only Phil Foden has matched a number Haaland went past in five games while two more – Julian Alvarez and Riyad Mahrez – have scored as many as five. When Haaland isn’t on top of his game, Manchester City may struggle. Other players aren’t scoring anything like as many goals. He may only need that one moment, but that one moment has to come and it has to be taken. City have substantially changed their method in order to accommodate him, and remain statistically worse off.
With Arsenal expected to claim three points in their 3pm kick-off against Bournemouth, Manchester City arrived for their lunchtime kick-off with the pressure building. Dropping points to Everton, Manchester United, Spurs and Nottingham Forest since returning from the World Cup break had left them five points adrift of Arsenal. With little reason to believe that a Bournemouth them they’d demolished 4-1 a week earlier would be able to contain the league leaders’ effervescent attack, they needed three points from this game in order to keep some semblance of pressure on them.
Newcastle United arrived at The Etihad Stadium in a wobble, on the crest of a slump, with familiar questions being asked yet again behind the scenes. They’d only won once in the Premier League since Boxing Day and hopes of securing Champions League football for next season may already be starting to wilt. The excitment of a run to the EFL Cup final ended in defeat and they exited the FA Cup at the first attempt, losing to League One Sheffield Wednesday. Goalscoring continues to be an issue, with Eddie Howe’s team having failed to score more than one in a Premier League match since their 3-0 win at Leicester City on Boxing Day.
And perhaps City’s out on The Haaland Paradox is his goalscoring second-in-command. There have been points this season at which Phil Foden hasn’t looked completely comfortable, but his form has picked up of late and his 15th minute goal proved to be too big a hurdle for Newcastle’s slightly saggy looking attacking options to be able to overcome on this occasion. Newcastle started the better of the teams and had the best of the early exchanges, but they seldom looked like much of a threat after falling behind.
But as the game progressed, we also got to see the other Manchester City. Against both Nottingham Forest and in their recent Champions League game against RB Leipzig they took the lead but failed to kill the game off and were eventually pegged back to a draw. There was a point in the second half when this felt like it might be about to repeat itself. Newcastle made a triple substitution on the hour and, with the home crowd starting to sound a little bit restless, started to get on top.
On this occasion, Pep had a tactical counter-offensive to Howe’s triple-threat, though it’s doubtful that even he was expecting it to work as quickly as it did. Bernardo Silva had been on the pitch for just two minutes and twelve seconds when he scored the goal that finally relaxed the neves around the Etihad, sweeping the ball in from Haaland’s flick on. The sound of 50-odd thousand people simultaneously exhaling felt audible in the goal celebrations.
And true to recent form, Newcastle didn’t have much of a response. The second goal knocked the stuffing out of their revival, and the final twenty minutes of the game were played with the air the result having already been decided. A team that had scored just three goals – one each for Isak, Almiron and Callum Wilson – in their last seven games can hardly be relied upon to score two in twenty minutes to save this game.
Newcastle’s improvement this season has been obvious (and their improvement from the dog days of whatever on earth Steve Bruce was trying to achieve all the more so), but it has felt as though they’ve run head first into a brick wall in recent weeks. The question that will likely characterise the rest of their season is probably now that how how thick that glass is and how much oil money it will take to crash through it. A defence which as over the course of the season has been the most parsimonious in the Premier League is starting to look breachable. The attacking options cause little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
This wasn’t a case of Manchester City quite firing on all cylinders, and it doesn’t really seem unfair to say that Newcastle’s relative inertia made things quite comfortable for them. And the lessons to be learned from a routine win are fairly straightforward. Manchester City look better when they’re not trying to channel everything through Erling Haaland and Phil Foden is in the sort of form which allows Pep Guardiola to facilitate this. If Newcastle need a more reliable goalscorer, City need more than a reliable goalscorer.
Arsenal retain the whip hand in the Premier League title race, but the lead is back to two points for a couple of hours and Manchester City remain, as they’ve seemed to for much of this season, on the point of one of those steamroller-like runs they they need if they’re to overturn them in the Premier League and successfully defend their title. March started with a team that isn’t City or Liverpool at the top of the table this point of the season for the first time since 2017. Manchester City continue to keep that pressure on, but Newcastle seldom pressured them in this game.
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