Erling Haaland’s form looked ominous heading into the first international break of the 2023/24 season. The Manchester City No.9 had six goals and an assist in just four Premier League outings. In the final game prior to the break against Fulham, the powerhouse centre-forward scored a hat-trick and chipped in with an assist in a 5-1 win for the champions.
Haaland scored 36 Premier League goals in his debut campaign in England and set a new top-flight record. He started the new season like a player wanting to shatter that record.
Yet now, with the second international break of the season already upon us, the 23-year-old is, for the first time since moving to England, struggling in front of goal.
In his six appearances following the September set of internationals, Haaland has added just two goals to his tally for the campaign. He scored for City in wins over Nottingham Forest and West Ham United. The former BVB striker is still the top scorer in the Premier League with eight goals in eight games, but players are catching up. Both Heung-Min Son and Alexander Isak have six to their names, while Jarrod Bowen, Mohamed Salah and Hwang Hee-Chan are all on five.
The worrying thing for the reigning champions will be that Haaland’s drought coincides with their poor form. Pep Guardiola’s men have lost back-to-back games in the Premier League with Wolves claiming a 2-1 win at Molineux and Arsenal eking out a 1-0 victory at the Emirates with a late Gabriel Martinelli strike.
In these consecutive defeats, Haaland mustered just one effort on goal across both matches and played a combined three key passes. The No.9 has been erratic, at best, over recent weeks.
For example, he’s averaged six or more efforts in three matches and then had fewer than three attempts on goal in three of the games. He’s very much the definition of hot and cold right now.
His average WhoScored rating across these six games has been just 7.02.
Furthermore, in the games he’s found himself among the shots, he’s scored a grand total of one goal. Yes, he managed a combined 21 shots against RB Leipzig, FK Crvena Zvezda and West Ham United and found the back of the net in just one of those games. In the 3-1 win over the Hammers, Haaland attempted nine shots and missed five big chances before adding to his tally for the reason.
There doesn’t seem to be a steady supply line to the goal machine this term. It is either feast or famine. And this inconsistent approach from City is impacting his reliability, something that previously couldn’t be said about the one-time Red Bull Salzburg forward.
It isn’t necessarily exploiting his weaknesses but the 2022/23 treble winners aren’t exactly playing to his strengths. When this is the case, you sort of realise how limited he is as a footballer.
Granted, he’s an unbelievable goalscorer but when the goals aren’t there, other parts of your game come into focus and this is what we’re witnessing right now. He’s averaging more shots than ever before in the Premier League - four per 90 up from 3.5 per 90 last season - but he’s attempted fewer passes in general and his pass success rate is almost 10% down on what it was during his first season in England.
He’s quite costly to a team determined to retain possession. He’s wasting opportunities that come his way and then he’s turning over the ball with loose passes. You wouldn’t describe Haaland as a black hole for a team looking to control games but he’s not far off it right now.
This was always the risk with the Norway international though. He is the purest of goalscorers but he’s not exactly an all-round striker who can influence things with the ball at his feet outside the area. City did well during his debut season with the club to funnel everything to him in a way that highlighted his strengths.
Without the injured Kevin De Bruyne and the suspended Rodri, City aren’t the same team and Haaland is suffering. They’re still a talented group of players but this isn’t Guardiola’s all-conquering squad. They are without the Belgian maestro and the best defensive midfielder in the world. They are also without Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan with both players leaving in the summer.
City aren’t exactly in transition but there are teething issues at play here and this is no doubt one of the key reasons as to why, for the first time since moving to the Etihad, Haaland looks like a square peg in a round hole.