Watching Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s Destroyer of Worlds

The English Premier League season is thirty-eight games long. For many years, it was axiomatic that, in order to prosper, teams needed a striker who could score twenty goals a season, a rate of a little more than a goal every two matches. In recent years, the league’s most prolific forwards—Harry Kane, of Tottenham Hotspur; Mohamed Salah, of Liverpool; and Jamie Vardy, of Leicester City—have regularly plundered about twenty-five goals a year. Until Wednesday night, the record for a season was thirty-two, set by Salah, at the peak of his powers, in 2018.

But that record, like almost every other scoring record in English soccer, was going to fall and be trampled into dust by Erling Haaland, a twenty-two-year-old from Bryne, on the west coast of Norway, who has set upon the E.P.L. this season like a visiting, wrathful angel. Haaland’s arrival in—and demolition of—the English game was somehow preordained before he joined Manchester City, last summer, from Borussia Dortmund for sixty-three million dollars. His father, Alf-Inge, was a tough, limited midfielder for City in the early two-thousands, before the club became the multibillion-dollar, multiple-championship-winning machine that it is today. Haaland 2.0 is the reboot, the GPT update. He is more fast, more strong, more good than any goal scorer in the history of the E.P.L. His Instagram feed consists of posts captioned “MOOD” and pictures of him drinking from two huge bottles of milk. He plays with the effectiveness of a sovereign wealth fund.

On Wednesday evening, Haaland took to the field of Etihad Stadium, in Manchester, in what was supposed to be the climactic showdown of the season: second-placed City against Arsenal, the league leader. Before kickoff, Arsenal was five points ahead of City, with six games left to play. But, in truth, the momentum had been tipping City’s way for weeks. With the youngest squad in the league, and the finishing line in sight, Arsenal had wobbled, drawing three games in succession, while City, league champion for the past two years, had hit a perfect stride, dismantling all comers in three competitions at once: the E.P.L., the UEFA Champions League, and the English F.A. Cup. Across the board, Haaland had scored forty-eight times in forty-two games—a rate of a goal every sixty-seven minutes. MOOD.

Since he scored twice in his E.P.L. début, against West Ham, in August, Haaland’s goals for Manchester City have fallen into two main genres: one where he streaks clear, galloping over the turf, and shoots early and low into the net; and the other, where the ball finds him just a few yards from goal, often in a crowded penalty box full of desperate defenders trying to stop only him, and Haaland heads or volleys or otherwise somehow bludgeons the thing in anyway. In these situations, Haaland’s feet are like the flippers at the base of a pinball machine. The ball is drawn to them—the game seems tilted—and then fired back with great force and technique. Honestly, one of the most surprising moments of the season so far was when Haaland blasted a routine chance over the crossbar at Nottingham Forest, back in February, and City ended up drawing the game. Haaland couldn’t believe it, either. The facts did not compute.

Haaland is six feet four, but on the screen he seems to manifest at a larger scale than the other full-size soccer players. He has the wingspan of an albatross. Arsenal’s central defenders, Gabriel Magalhães and Rob Holding, didn’t know whether to get close to Haaland and grapple and tussle with him (in which case Haaland fought back or, in the manner of all modern soccer forwards, tumbled to the ground like an innocent, felled tree) or whether to stand off him and let him have the ball—and, well, that wasn’t a good option, either. Pep Guardiola, Haaland’s coach (and formerly the coach of Lionel Messi, at Barcelona, and of Robert Lewandowski, another goal-scoring phenomenon, at Bayern Munich) has adapted City’s play to suit the forward. This season, the team has been faster and less subtle—a funnel, more or less, to get the ball near Haaland’s flippers. On Wednesday, however, Guardiola positioned Haaland deeper than usual, and encouraged other players to go past him. In the game’s seventh minute, the ploy worked: Haaland controlled a high ball, bounced off Holding, and laid it into the path of Kevin De Bruyne, City’s long-serving Belgian playmaker, who ran into the space and slithered a precise low shot past Aaron Ramsdale, the Arsenal goalkeeper.

By his standards, Haaland should have scored four in the rest of the first half. There were chances from both genres: he galloped clear, he poked for goal. He enjoyed the game tremendously. Most of the time, he wore a broad, disarmingly goofy grin. If there was a dustup, or some shoving, he wanted in. Whenever he got the ball at his feet, even at improbable distances from goal, the crowd bayed with expectation. In the thirty-second minute, he caromed the ball toward goal from a tight angle and Ramsdale did well to punch it away. Four minutes later, Haaland got under full sail and charged at the Arsenal goal—his ponytail went briefly, perfectly horizontal—and bent his shot just wide. When Holding, the Arsenal defender, managed to get ahead of Haaland once, and put the ball out of play, Haaland looked so cross that his face momentarily resembled a skull.

City scored again before half time—an elegant header by John Stones, supplied by De Bruyne—before Haaland split Arsenal open again, providing another pass for De Bruyne to score the game’s third goal, in the fifty-fourth minute. The contest was over at that point. Arsenal came into it more, but that was only because City allowed them to. I thought Guardiola would substitute Haaland—give him a bottle of milk—but he played on. As the game wound down, Arsenal scored a consolation goal and Haaland let down his shoulder-length, blond hair. It was a quietly humanizing moment. He was just another young man, playing the game he loves on a cold, late-spring evening. Then Phil Foden, a City substitute, trapped the ball and slipped it toward Haaland just inside the Arsenal penalty box. It was the ninety-fifth minute and Haaland had two defenders with him, but his left boot was already swinging. He scuffed it, hard enough, and it bounced past Ramsdale to complete City’s 4–1 victory and almost certainly secure a third consecutive E.P.L. championship. Haaland ran to the corner and slid on his knees, saluting the fans and himself. It was his thirty-third goal in the league, breaking Salah’s record, and his forty-ninth of the season, which took him level with Clive Allen, the last striker to score as many goals, back in 1986. Haaland still has a minimum of ten games to play. After the final whistle, he lapped the pitch with both arms raised above his head, giving the world a double thumbs-up. Teammates slapped his back and hugged him, resting their heads on his chest. Then he disappeared into the depths of the stadium, his long hair flowing, looking for more worlds to conquer. ♦

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