Erling Haaland, Man City, Pep Guardiola in many ways a perfect match. Now it’s up to them

It wasn’t quite LeBron James and The Decision. After all, Erling Braut Haaland wasn’t a free agent, it wasn’t televised, there was no “hometown betrayal” narrative and there was much whispering that an announcement was imminent as various suitors had dropped out of the running. But it’s not far away.

Haaland didn’t say – or at least hadn’t said as of Tuesday night – that “I will take my talents to Etihad and move to Manchester City. … I feel like it’s going to give me the best opportunity to win and win over a number of years.” But he and his entourage probably thought so.

This is a 21-year-old male child and one of the two hottest properties in the global game alongside Kylian Mbappe. On Tuesday it was confirmed he was joining forces with Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, one of the best (and best equipped) clubs of recent seasons and hot favorites to win their fourth Premier League title in five years.

What unites player and club, apart from being close to the gold standard in their work, is the planning.

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After playing second fiddle to crosstown rivals Manchester United for most of their history and winning two Premier League titles in their early years under Emirati ownership with more of a scattered, big-spending approach, they committed to a long-term project and focused Look to Guardiola, the architect of two Champions League crowns when he was at Barcelona and the most sought-after manager in the game at the time, as the manager who takes them further.

Guardiola was at Bayern at the time, but they rolled out the red carpet for him. They made no secret of their desire to learn from the Barcelona model, to the point of organizing their youth academies around the same ideas and hiring former Barcelona executives such as Ferran Soriano (now the club’s managing director) and Txiki Begiristain (the city’s sporting director). Everything was set for the day he was ready to commit, and when he finally did, in the summer of 2016, he arrived in surroundings that were more familiar than they otherwise would have been.

Haaland’s career is also meticulously planned. Part of that is thanks to his father Alfie, a former Norway international who spent three seasons at City from 2000-03. Being the son of an ex-pro means having access to networks and expertise beyond the average Joe and Haaland took full advantage.

He started at his hometown club Bryne and at 16, after visiting and being scouted by half of Europe’s biggest teams, stayed in his home country and settled on Molde. Eighteen months later, just after turning 18, he joined FC Salzburg in Austria, turning down more lucrative opportunities at bigger clubs. Why Salzburg? Because they were part of the Red Bull club group and were known for not only giving young players playing time, but also playing modern, fast and powerful football. They were the ideal ‘graduation school’ and just as important, they agreed to include a relatively low release clause (€20m/$21m) in his contract. When young Erling rose above that fee, he wanted to be sure he could keep going.

That’s exactly what happened. He scored 28 goals in 22 games in the first half of the 2019/20 season and made his next step up the food chain in January. With a transfer fee of €20m, less than a third of his market valuation at the time, he could pretty much choose his target and he chose Borussia Dortmund: a bigger club and a bigger challenge, but the same commitment to youth . And again they agreed on a release clause – €60m, it turned out – that was well below what he would otherwise fetch on the open market.

So while Haaland wasn’t technically a free agent, having a release clause that low relative to your potential free market transfer fee (which is comfortably in the €180m range) was pretty much the same thing. He – along with his father and his late agent Mino Raiola – was in control. They could name their price and above all their goal.

This meticulous planning doesn’t just extend to his father and agent cleverly planning his path. By all accounts, Haaland is a clean living, hardworking kid with a gentler New Age (yoga and meditation) side. He avoids controversy, respects hierarchy, and while not a prominent media presence, still manages to garner 15 million followers on Instagram with posts like this back home in Norway. He’s lived and breathed the game at the highest level since he was a kid, and it shows.

On the surface it fits together perfectly. Manchester City have not had a dominant centre-forward since 2018 before injuries hastened Sergio Aguero’s decline. They still score a lot of goals, but mostly without a specialized centre-forward. They went after England striker Harry Kane last summer but were put off by Tottenham’s $160m valuation. Haaland, who is seven years younger than Kane and arguably already at his level, is a comparable bargain.

This isn’t a case of a naïve young superstar with stars (and money signs) in his eyes, either. Haaland and his advisors know exactly what they are getting into at City. You know how Guardiola wants his teams to play, how he prefers the extra pass, how he values ​​work pace combined with quality, how the individual is subordinate to the collective.

As tempting as it may be to draw comparisons to the great failed experiment of 2009 – the last time Guardiola went big on an oversized Scandinavian center forward named Zlatan Ibrahimovic – they are wrong. Guardiola, then at Barcelona, ​​had just won his first Champions League and the club acquired the towering Sweden international for a fee of $55m plus the rights to Samuel Eto’o, a total package valued at over $80m. It didn’t work out as Ibrahimovic clashed with Guardiola early and often, leaving after just one season. This has led some, most recently Patrice Evra, to suggest that Guardiola cannot handle oversized, flashy personalities and that he, not any individual player, needs to be the star.

It’s a very wrong reading of the situation, then and now. First of all, Ibrahimovic is oversized, open and larger than life to a degree that Haaland will never be. Secondly, he was 27 at the time and fully trained as a pro while Haaland is still developing (which is scary considering how good he already is). In addition, Guardiola today is not the Guardiola of 2009. He has also grown, gained life experience and worked successfully with many great personalities at FC Bayern Munich (Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer, to name just two).

On the pitch, the fit feels natural. Haaland is a big central striker, but he’s also quick and a great passer. He has vision and work tempo, two qualities that Guardiola seems to value above all else. Personally, he’s hungry, probably hungrier than Ibrahimovic (who had already won league titles at three different clubs). City’s closet is full of trophies; Haaland’s only includes the 2020-21 German Cup and the league title he won in his first six months at Salzburg when he was 18 and played just two league games. Hunger and motivation will not be an issue.

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In the end, City can celebrate: They won the Haaland sweepstakes. Critics will say that Real Madrid are putting their chips in Mbappe’s basket when it comes to their next big signing, that Barcelona are on the brink of bankruptcy (and Juventus are only marginally better), that Chelsea are under government sanctions, that Liverpool are busy expanding their own forwards (Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah) rather than thinking about signing new ones, that Bayern Munich has its own strict salary structure… but let them talk.

The fact is that everyone wanted Haaland and City got him. The fact that he chose them as much as they chose him (if not more) bodes well.

Both go into the matter with open eyes. Now the rest is up to Pep and Erling.

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