Erling Haaland is likely to make his Premier League debut against West Ham
Erling Haaland is likely to make his Premier League debut against West Ham

Erling Haaland: Will Manchester City's new striker hinder or help against West Ham?

When the Premier League champions begin their summer by signing the world’s best striker you would expect the rest of the division to quake with fear.

But Manchester City’s first opponents of the season West Ham may in fact feel this is a more vulnerable side than the one they drew 2-2 with in May.

Erling Haaland is not a guaranteed success and judging by last weekend’s Community Shield he will need time to adapt. That could give West Ham the edge, and an absence of new additions for the hosts could also prove to be an advantage.

At the start of a new season we tend to get overexcited by new signings, ignoring historical evidence of adaptation periods and undervaluing the benefits of continuity.

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It should not worry Hammers supporters, then, that David Moyes has only made minor upgrades in the summer, while marquee signing Gianluca Scamacca - who scored 16 goals in Serie A last season - has not had a chance to feature in pre-season and probably won’t get any minutes on Sunday.

Instead, we will see the same old West Ham team and the same old tactics: a stubborn, ruthlessly-organised, counter-attacking performance from a side who know exactly how to blunt Guardiola. It is one of the hardest possible fixtures Haaland - and City’s new-look front three more generally – could have drawn to begin their 2022/23 together.

Haaland scored 86 goals in 89 matches for Borussia Dortmund and yet his playing style could not be more of a contrast to Man City’s usual tactical rhythms.

Their strikerless system last year sought to overload the number ten space with playmakers but Haaland will never occupy this zone, instead making runs on the shoulder of the last defender and operating chiefly as a penalty-box poacher.

Erling Haaland's 21/22 stats

Trained in the German school of quick transitional football, Haaland will need a lot of time to appreciate the slower patterns at Man City.

He simply doesn’t have the experience, or maybe even the talent, to do what Phil Foden did as the false nine, as we saw last weekend when Haaland’s runs left his team-mates frustrated with nobody to pass to between the lines. The 21-year-old had 16 touches and completed seven passes. He looked lost.

It is remarkable that Guardiola has signed somebody who cannot link the play outside the area, threatening disruptions to their possession game over the first few months of the season.

It is equally strange that he has signed a player unable to press: Haaland is in the 27th percentile for pressures among all forwards in the top five leagues over the last 365 days, according to FBRef.

Now leading the line along with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez, neither of whom are strong pressers, suddenly Man City look vulnerable from an offensive and defensive standpoint.

That is why West Ham’s summer of continuity could be such a major advantage this weekend. As usual, Moyes will ensure tightly compressed space between the lines of his 4-2-3-1, sitting in a defiant midblock that forces Man City into slow and harmless possession for long periods of the match.

Moyes’ side are excellent at digging in, before taking advantage of Man City’s high defensive line by countering sharply when the ball is eventually won back – mostly via long balls into the channels for Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio to lead the charge.

Michail Antonio

The chances of success here are increased by the downturn in pressure applied by the new City front three; if they do not counter-press effectively then West Ham will have time to pick out precise forward passes to launch those breaks.

This is what happened in the Community Shield, in which it was too easy for Liverpool to walk out of defence and move down the wings, with Grealish and Mahrez easily bypassed and caught high up the pitch. Antonio, Bowen, and Manuel Lanzini, drifting into these under-stocked flanks, can take similar advantage.

Then again, perhaps this underestimates the advantages to Guardiola dramatically altering his tactical setup. He was never happy with a strikerless formation and was often left frustrated last year – by West Ham and others – at the low tempo and predictability of his team’s attacking lines when met with a lower block.

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Greater verticality via Haaland could prove to be a secret weapon in games like this, then, should City attempt to negate West Ham’s compression between the lines by playing with vertical urgency from within their own half. In other words, will West Ham’s midblock be pulled apart by early long balls played in behind for Haaland?

If he can be found by his new team-mates, this may lead to panic and confusion - or at the very least a frantic retreat into a too-deep formation that invites Man City to pile pressure onto their goal.

Whatever happens on Sunday it will be far too early to judge Haaland’s suitability at Man City or indeed the club’s prospects for the season; they lost 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend last year and still won the title, lest we forget.

But it will provide a window into what it is Guardiola hopes to get out of Haaland, and provide first evidence of whether his stark contrast with the usual Man City approach hinders their tactical choreography or, by shaking things up, offers a new solution to old problems.

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