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

LeBron James wasn’t quite the “resolution.” After all, Erling Braut Haaland was not a free agent, he was not televised, there was no narrative of “betrayal of his hometown” and there were so many whispers that an announcement was imminent as several suitors withdrew from the race. But it is not far.

Haaland did not say – or at least did not say so until Tuesday night – that “I will take my talents to the Etihad and join Manchester City. … I feel it will give me the best chance of winning and winning for several years”. But perhaps he and his entourage were thinking about it.

This is a 21-year-old man who, along with Kylian Mbappe, is one of the two hottest royals in the world game. Confirmation came on Tuesday that he joined Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, one of the best (and resourced) clubs over the past few seasons, and the most popular favorites to win the Premier League title for the fourth time in five years.

What unites the player and the club, other than the fact that they are close to the gold standard in what they do, is planning.

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After playing second fiddle to Crosstown rival Manchester United for most of their history, winning two Premier League titles in their early years under Emirati ownership more with a hefty and scattered spending approach, they committed to a long-term project and focused on Guardiola, a two-time Champions League winner when he was in Barcelona and the coach most desirable to the match at the time, as a coach leads them even further.

Guardiola was at Bayern at the time, but they rolled out the red carpet for him. They have made no secret of their desire to learn from the Barcelona model, right down to organizing their youth academies according to the same ideas and securing former Barcelona executives such as Ferran Soriano (the club’s current CEO) and Txiki Begiristain (the city’s sporting director). Everything was ready for the day he was ready to commit, and when he finally did, in the summer of 2016, he arrived in an environment much more familiar than it would otherwise be.

Haaland’s career has also been meticulously planned. Part of that goes back to his father, Alfie, a former Norwegian international who spent three seasons at City from 2000 to 2003. Being the son of an ex-pro means access to networks and knowledge that are beyond average Joe, Haaland has taken full advantage.

He started his career at his local club, Brian, and at the age of 16, after being visited and scouted by half of the biggest teams in Europe, he stayed in his home country, choosing Molde. Eighteen months later, right after he turned eighteen, he moved to FC Salzburg in Austria, turning down more lucrative opportunities at the big clubs. Why Salzburg? Because they were part of the Red Bull club of clubs and were known not only for giving youngsters time to play, but for playing modern, fast and high-pressure football. They were the perfect ‘final school’ and, just as importantly, they agreed to put a relatively low penalty clause (€20m/$21m) into his contract. If young Erling beats these charges, he wants to make sure he can move on.

And that’s exactly what happened. He scored 28 goals in 22 games in the first half of the 2019-20 season and in January he took his next step up the food chain. With a €20m fee that was less than a third of his market valuation at the time, he could largely choose his destination, choosing Borussia Dortmund: a bigger club, a bigger challenge, but the same commitment to youngsters. And again, they agreed on a penalty clause – 60 million euros, as it turned out – this was much less than he would have achieved in the free market.

So while Haaland was not technically a free agent, having a very low issuance requirement for potential transfer fees on the open market (which is in the €180m range) was pretty much the same. He – along with his father and late agent Mino Raiola – were in control. They can determine their price and, most importantly, their destination.

This careful planning extends not only to his father and his agent being skilled in planning his path as well. By all accounts, Haaland is a clean-living, hard-working kid who has a softer side and a new age (yoga and meditation). He avoids controversy, respects hierarchy, and while he’s not an outright media presence, he still manages to amass 15 million followers on Instagram with posts like this back home in Norway. He has lived and breathed the game at the highest level since childhood, and it shows.

On the surface, it’s a perfect match. Manchester City have not had a dominant striker since 2018, before injuries accelerated Sergio Aguero’s decline. They still score a lot of goals, but mostly without a specialized striker. Last summer, they pursued England striker Harry Kane, but were held back by Spurs’ $160m valuation. Haaland, who is seven years younger than Kane and arguably already at his level, is a comparative bargain.

This is also not the case of a naive young star with stars (and money signs) in his eyes. Haaland and his advisors know exactly what they are getting into with Citi. They know the way Guardiola wants his teams to play, the way he favors extra passes, the way he values ​​work rate combined with quality, the way one subordinates the group.

It may be tempting to draw comparisons to the failed big test of 2009 – the last time Guardiola bet big on a Scandinavian top-tier striker, by the name of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – they are off target. Guardiola, then at Barcelona, ​​had just won the Champions League for the first time and the club acquired the giant Sweden international for a fee of $55 million plus Samuel Eto’o’s rights, a total deal worth more than $80 million. It didn’t work out as Ibrahimovic clashed early and often with Guardiola, leaving after only one season. This has led to some, most recently Patrice Evra, suggesting that Guardiola can’t handle the huge, in-your-face personalities and that, not any single player, he should be the star.

It’s a very misreading of the situation, then and now. First, Ibrahimovic is so big, outspoken, and larger than life that Haaland will never be. Second, he was 27 years old and fully formed as a pro at the time, while Haaland is still developing (which is scary, given how cool he really is). Also, Guardiola today is not the Guardiola of 2009 either. He too has grown, had life experiences and successfully worked with many big personalities at Bayern Munich (Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer, to name a few).

On the field, the fit feels natural. Haaland is a great central striker, but he is also quick and passes the ball excellently. He has vision and work rate, two qualities that Guardiola seems to win above all else. Personally, he’s hungry, perhaps even hungrier than Ibrahimovic (who has previously won league titles at three different clubs). The city treasury is full of trophies; Haaland contains only the 2020-21 German Cup and the league title he won in his first six months in Salzburg, when he was 18 and only made two league appearances. Hunger and motivation will not be a problem.

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In the end, the city can celebrate: they won the Haaland lottery. Critics will say that Real Madrid are putting their cards in Mbappe’s basket when it comes to the next big signing, that Barcelona are on the verge of bankruptcy (and Juventus are in only a marginally better boat), that Chelsea are under government sanctions, and that Liverpool are also busy trying to extend their attackers (Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah) Instead of considering signing new players, Bayern Munich has its own strict salary structure…but let them talk.

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

They both go into this with eyes wide open. Now, the rest is up to Pep and Erling.

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