Erling Haaland’s big moment arrived on 84 minutes: Europe’s hottest young talent dropped into a pocket of space and steered a cute round-the-corner pass into Marco Reus. It splayed Manchester City’s defence and Borussia Dortmund’s captain beat Ederson for a precious away goal.
Haaland had shown the kind of cute play Pep Guardiola schools his team in. Yet this was a rare chance for the 20-year-old to shine as City squeezed his supply-line for most of the contest. Instead they were a blue blur of creativity throughout and, after Phil Foden struck a late winner, Haaland may have wandered off at the final whistle pondering whether performing for Guardiola could be a next clever move in a career thus far carefully plotted.
From Bryne to Molde – Norway’s second then first tier – before RB Salzburg (Austrian champions) and Dortmund of the Bundesliga, Haaland’s choice of teams has aided a stellar rise that shows a shrewdness for decision making.
The biggest call came in January 2020. Then, he turned down the bright lights of Manchester United and a chance to work again with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, his Molde manager, for the German club that buys emerging talent then fields them on a regular basis.
With a release clause of circa £68m that can be triggered in the summer of 2022, Dortmund are bound to cash in on Haaland this close season, knowing his price will be north of £100m. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the current favourites, while United, Chelsea and City retain a firm interest. Yet if Haaland decides his goal-greedy act – he has 39 in 41 appearances – would benefit from a City boasting an embarrassment of creative riches, there remains a question if Guardiola, a manager whose DNA makes him dubious of centre-forwards, views him as an apt fit.
In the buildup to this quarter-final Guardiola stated City could not afford a £100m-plus transfer while praising the “numbers” of Dortmund’s star turn. With Sergio Agüero to leave in summer there is a club-record-goalscorer-size hole to fill. Thirty-three in June, the Argentinian will end a decade of brilliance by pointing to a return that stands (currently) at 257 goals in 385 appearances, 181 of which have been plundered in the Premier League, making him the competition’s top overseas marksman.
Yet Agüero had to convince Guardiola of his worth when the latter took over in the summer of 2016, a challenge that involved evolving from penalty-area executioner to the kind of striker-midfielder hybrid that makes fellow poacher Gabriel Jesus a favourite of the manager’s.
Haaland is a dedicated finisher, a forward who, as Guardiola stated, can score “with the right, the left, via counterattacks, in the box”. This is not enough, though. Not for a 50-year-old whose preference is for nimble midfielders who possess 360-degree vision and can break into the area to ransack defences.
Here, think Kevin De Bruyne, Foden, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Ilkay Gündogan, who entered this opening leg as City’s highest scorer with 16. Forget Haaland’s haul of 34 strikes in 37 Bundesliga outings or the 10 in the Champions League. Instead, view how Guardiola reacted to the injury-enforced absences of Agüero and Jesus this season by harnessing the “ghost” No 9 formation to killer effect, as seen again here.
With Agüero and Jesus benched against Germany’s fifth-placed side, Silva was positioned as the supposed focal point when really any of him, Mahrez, De Bruyne, Foden and Gündogan were expected to arrive there in City’s marauding game of musical chairs. So it was that an Emre Can slip had De Bruyne starting and finishing a move for their opener inside 20 minutes. Haaland gazed at this and wondered why he had yet to be given a chance to add to a record 20 strikes in 14 Champions League appearances. As the spearhead he was blunted at the tip of Edin Terzic’s 4-3-3, that had a 17-year-old from Stourbridge, Jude Bellingham, hoping to load bullets for him from midfield.
When Reus finally opened the door for Haaland his touch was clumsy. There were other moments too – more than once the Leeds-born youngster dropped deep and initiated raids that had him galloping towards City’s area in the hope of scoring in similar mode to De Bruyne.
Haaland would end, though, without a goal for a fifth consecutive outing in all competitions: a drought for him. He will, of course, hope to mark next week’s return leg by doing what comes naturally: scoring.
Earlier in the day City reported a £126m loss for the last financial year. If this supported Guardiola’s statement that a £100m transfer is beyond their reach it should be noted the claim came last week. By Monday he was conceding the amount might yet be splurged in future by the club.
If finance ultimately proves a non-issue, whether Haaland lands at City may come down to whether two philosophies can match. On one side is a starlet whose track record suggests realising his singular talent takes priority. On the other a manager who remains ambivalent about No 9s.