AT question: when will a Manchester City No 9 truly be a No 9 and not a false one, as when Pep Guardiola fields Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, or Gabriel Jesus to “lead” the line? Answer: when Erling Haaland or another recognized centre-forward targeted by the manager is signed in the summer.
Those named above in Guardiola’s current squad operate as the supposed lone striker, but in his carousel of revolving positions any attack-minded player is informed to float into an advanced central berth and dizzy opponents. In this mode City are the piquant entertainers who claimed last term’s Premier League with no natural No 9 for most of the campaign and whose title defense this season will not feature one at all.
City are the leaders, by a point from Liverpool, with nine matches left. They are at Southampton on Sunday in the FA Cup quarter-finals and were drawn against Atlético Madrid on Friday in the Champions League last eight as they chase a Treble he believes is possible if particularly tough to achieve.
Yet Guardiola’s striker-less wonders still require an elite one, he insists, so when the next window opens the club will resume a chase that failed last summer to land Harry Kane.
The new head of the list is Haaland. After Monday’s stumble at Crystal Palace – 0-0, chances spurned – Guardiola can expect a) to be asked more questions about the Borussia Dortmund man; and b) to hear from the told-you-so brigade about how trying to be champions again with no 20-goal-a-season marksman was always going to be folly.
Guardiola, a shrewd operator, has already preempted these scenarios, saying he gets “killed” for the latter whenever points are dropped and, regarding the former, via a mantra heard in several media briefings that “Manchester City definitely need a striker”.
This is a novel speech for a manager who adores a midfielder. To hear Guardiola, an accomplished No 6 from the Barcelona school of schemers, be so unequivocal regarding the desire for a prolific scorer can jar. Then there is the empirical evidence the table shows: City are first, their 68 goals ranking second only to Liverpool who also lack a consistently scoring No 9.
Roberto Firmino is the regular there but the Brazilian’s league returns are 12, nine and nine in the past three seasons, with five after 16 appearances this term (though he has been injured).
They do, though, have Mo Salah – the Golden Boot winner of 2016-17, who registered 22, 19 and 22 in the following campaigns and has 20 in this – plus the support acts of Sadio Mané (12 this season, 11, 18 and 22 in the previous three) and Diogo Jota (13 and nine, in the current and last terms).
City have been the kings of sharing goals around. In Guardiola’s first three seasons the now departed Sergio Agüero hit 20, 21, and 21. The latter two tallies were accumulated in championship-winning XIs: the first featured contributions from Sterling (18), Jesus (13) and Leroy Sané (10) . In the second, Sterling (17) and Sané (10) were to the fore, while Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Jesus all chipped in with seven. This season Sterling and Mahrez have 10 apiece, Kevin De Bruyne nine, Phil Foden and Silva seven each.
Agüero’s exit last summer left a club-record 260-goal hole in the forward line. This is why first Kane was pursued and now Haaland. The Norwegian’s numbers for Dortmund: 16 in 15 Bundesliga appearances, six assists; 23 strikes in 22 appearances in all competitions, including three in three Champions League outings. Overall career statistics: 80 in 80 for Dortmund, 20 in 20 for Molde, 29 in 27 for Salzburg, and 12 in 15 for Norway, the zero in 16 for his first club, Bryne, long forgotten.
This record is one reason why Guardiola is keen to sign the 21-year-old: imagine how many more goals City would score with Haaland in the XI.
But another relates to City’s defense and how the opposition try to unlock it. Here, think of the home reverses to Palace (2-0) and Tottenham (3-2), plus myriad matches where Guardiola’s high-lying rearguard has been vulnerable to raids launched over the top or along the sides.
The tactic requires a low block that is tricky for City to break down. In most contests this is managed by a kind of speedy five-a-side play that incorporates passing down the wings and incisive penalty area forays. When, though, this is failing, Guardiola wants a dedicated target-man to offer variation. “If we have a striker, we play in a different way but if you don’t have it you have to adapt with the quality [abilities] that we have,” he says.
What Haaland – or any No 9 – must also possess is an ability to be fluid, to understand and execute City’s constant off-the-front patterns. The Norwegian has this, as was illustrated by Marco Reus’s strike in last season’s 2-1 Champions League defeat at City: Haaland dropped into a pocket to become a de facto No 10 who created the chance.
So in the pursuit of Haaland (or anyone else) Guardiola wants to recruit yet another smart-brained, pass-and-move footballer, but one who adds an Agüero-like proven eye for goal to a squad already bristling with talent.
It sounds like a frightening prospect for City’s opponents. They are pretty scared already.