The arrival of Erling Haaland has given Manchester City one of the most formidable scorers ever seen in English soccer, with his presence enabling manager Pep Guardiola to evolve his tactical approach in the biggest games.
Guardiola will always prefer his teams to dominate possession. “Maybe one day they will change the rules,” he once said, “but I think to score a goal you need the ball.”
Guardiola, however, is no longer wedded to the possession-based philosophy that was the hallmark of his trophy-laden time at Barcelona, as well as at Bayern Munich and City.
Just look at City’s most important matches this season.
In an away game at Premier League title rival Arsenal in February, City had only 36% possession — the team’s lowest figure in 11 years. City won 3-1.
In the two legs against Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinals, City had 44% possession at home last week and 42% in Germany on Wednesday. City won 3-0 then drew 1-1 to advance to the semifinals with plenty to spare.
It’s no coincidence. Guardiola, it seems, is becoming less stubborn about the soccer style for which he has become so renowned.
It could yet lead City to a first Champions League title.
“In the Champions League, we’ve learnt from our mistakes of the past,” City midfielder Bernardo Silva said after Wednesday’s game. “Before, we used to think that we needed to be 90 minutes dominating the game, controlling in their final third.
“But in this competition, when you play against Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, you need to accept that there are times when you need to defend, be consistent, work hard to not give away easy chances and that is what we've been trying to work on. In the past, we've had a lot of frustrating nights because of that.”
The impact of Haaland cannot be understated.
The Norway striker doesn’t press like City’s previous strikers, such as Gabriel Jesus or the latter-day Sergio Aguero. What he does offer, particularly in big games, is a devastating presence on the counterattack with his strength and pace.
City’s goal against Bayern on Wednesday showed that. John Stones cleared the ball from near his own goal line as City narrowly averted danger from another Bayern attack, Haaland used his upper-body strength to shrug off his marker and lay the ball off to Kevin De Bruyne, and then spun away.
De Bruyne picked out Haaland with a through-ball and the striker did the rest, skipping around Dayot Upamecano and slotting home a finish for his 48th goal of the season.
So, City can now pick apart teams with a passing game it has turned into an art form under Guardiola, or go the direct route as shown against Bayern.
It’s why the English team’s chances of collecting that elusive Champions League title has increased — even if Real Madrid, a 14-time champion, will provide the ultimate test in the semifinals.
Guardiola has spent most of this season trying to find the right strategy and approach to accommodate Haaland, considering that City played mostly without a striker last season and still won the Premier League.
The Spanish coach has come with a system that sees City play a hybrid formation where Stones — nominally a center back — plays in center midfield with the ball in a 3-2-5 and drops back into defense off the ball in what turns into a 4-1-4-1 formation.
That gives City more options in attacking situations without leaving the team too open on the counterattack, even if Bayern did cause repeated issues in both legs of the quarterfinals.
Silva said City’s players have finally warmed to the change in system. Then team is unbeaten in its last 15 games, winning 12 of them, and is still in contention for the Premier League-Champions League-FA Cup treble.
“You know how Pep is — he always creates something different, he always adapts because he thinks if people are watching our games, they'll adapt to us,” Silva said. “He changed the way we play and defend this season and now we’ve been doing very well. It took us a bit of time to get to that point where we all feel very comfortable but now I think … we’re all happy with it.”
It’s crunch time for City over the next month. It starts with an FA Cup semifinal match against Sheffield United on Saturday, less than 72 hours after the game at Bayern. Then comes the visit of Arsenal in a potential title decider between the Premier League’s top two teams, while there are home-and-away matches against Madrid in the Champions League in mid-May.
With Haaland relentless in front of goal and Guardiola demonstrating his capacity for change, City could be on target for a season to remember.
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