The great Erling Haaland goal drought spanned 20 days and 333 minutes of football. Almost long enough to watch the entirety of Fawlty Towers and definitely long enough to invite questions if a prolific striker made Manchester City faulty. There was a counter-argument that they were not worse, but that Pep Guardiola was malfunctioning instead, his strange selections hampering City, until the patron saint of midfielders may have become a convert to the centre-forward’s cause as he prospered by sacrificing his beloved technicians for another attacker.
When Tottenham scored two goals in three minutes, a third successive defeat beckoned for Guardiola. When City responded with two in three, both came courtesy of men who are strikers by trade. Crowbarring Julian Alvarez and Haaland into the same team took some doing for Guardiola; they found it easier to find the net, the Argentinian with a poacher’s strike, the Norwegian with a target man’s header. A comeback was completed by a double from Riyad Mahrez, the winger who top-scored for City last season, in the days when Guardiola took his concept to its logical extreme and won the league in a side shorn of strikers. It was fashioned, however, by a presence or two in the penalty box.
The manager who once said he would pick a team of 11 midfielders if he could instead had a pair of centre-forwards, even if they weren’t actually paired. There wasn’t a false nine in sight; arguably, however, Alvarez, a striker masquerading as a midfielder for 90 minutes, was a false eight.
If Guardiola’s influence has rubbed off on the Premier League, when the teamsheets emerged, it seemed he borrowed from the British game by adopting a 4-4-2 formation. It soon transpired that this was not his Mike Bassett impression. He deployed Alvarez in a deeper role. A World Cup-winning No 9 was reinvented as a No 8 for Guardiola; after Antoine Griezmann was converted into a midfielder by Didier Deschamps, perhaps the City manager was simply following a trend.
Certainly Alvarez is industrious enough. He is a willing worker, as Lionel Messi appreciated when Alvarez did the running of two men in the World Cup. He spent some of his time following Rodrigo Bentancur around, looking to nullify a playmaker. He helped City preserve their lead with blocks on the edge of his box. Yet his inclusion came at the expense of two of the best attacking central midfielders in the global game, in Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. With Alvarez, there wasn’t the same slickness in possession. It helped render the second half a more open affair as he bombed on into the box. Guardiola had said, semi-seriously, that he was considering some “ridiculous ideas” for the Manchester derby. Perhaps he unveiled them for the Tottenham game instead. Perhaps there was method in his madness.
He had detected a lack of fluidity in recent performances and responded by omitting four of his most creative players. There was no De Bruyne, no Silva, no Phil Foden and no Joao Cancelo. Without them, City produced some of their most stirring, stunning football this season; largely in the second half, often aided by the magnificent Mahrez, who played a part in all four goals and who delivered the game’s classiest finishes.
But even in a Spurs-esque start, Haaland could have scored twice in as many first-half minutes. He was denied by Hugo Lloris, which represented the high before the low for the Frenchman. He headed over. Later he headed in. Aiming for the big lad in the box can be a productive policy, as many an old-school Brit could have told Guardiola.
It is a way in which Haaland has given him another dimension. His battalion of false nines used to emerge by stealth. There is nothing subtle about Haaland, the blond beacon in the box. Seeing him is easier than stopping him, however. His longest spell without a goal in a City only actually included two goalless starts and they won one of those games. His return now stands at 28 goals in 25 games: with 22 league goals, he has drawn level again with Chelsea.
Yet, as he was stuck on 21, a narrative was developing. A slow beginning has become an unwanted City speciality. They have played five games in 2023 and scored before the break in just one, even if that did yield three goals against a hapless Chelsea side. The novel element here was that a team was 2-0 down in a Tottenham game and it wasn’t Tottenham. It was a curiosity of Antonio Conte’s strangely enigmatic side. They rarely play well for 90 minutes. A blistering 45 proved enough for City.
But Spurs have gone 2-0 down to Arsenal, Aston Villa, Brentford, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Manchester United in their last 13 matches. If they were road-testing the theory that 2-0 is the most dangerous lead, they received proof when they contrived to lose from such a seemingly commanding position.
It was a tale of goalscorers and goalkeepers. Briefly, Lloris could savour the sense a shot-stopper was to blame for a goal in a Tottenham match and it wasn’t him; then, as Mahrez’s shot flew past him at his near post, it was. Ederson’s distribution bookended the scoring, his hospital pass to Rodri leading to Dejan Kulusevski’s opener, his long pass that went, via the thigh of the culpable Clement Lenglet, to Mahrez, completing it. His save percentage has dropped this season but the numbers are stacking up differently at City this season. That is the Haaland factor.