Scoring an incredible 18 Premier League goals already, at a rate of one every 57.8 minutes, it is safe to say Erling Haaland has adapted seamlessly to his new surroundings.
The Manchester City star is a prodigiously talented centre-forward who, fitness permitting, looks set to win this season’s Castrol Golden Boot by a landslide margin.
But how has Haaland’s presence within Pep Guardiola’s starting XI altered their style of play from a tactical perspective?
Altering the full-backs
City were one of the first sides to start inverting their full-backs into central-midfield positions as part of their positional rotation.
It is a pattern of play that creates overloads that help them to move the ball through the thirds of the pitch with ease.
From this season it became apparent Guardiola had worked on a tweak in this department.
Rather than sliding one full-back inside at a time, the City head coach will encourage both full-backs to take up positions inside the midfield, either side of defensive-midfield linchpin Rodri.
Haaland's 22/23 stats so far
|Total shots (excl. blocked)||43|
|Shots on target||28|
|Conversion rate (%)||41.9|
|Mins per goal||57.8|
On the ball City now regularly morph into a 2-3-4-1 that frees up their "box-to-box No 8s" to operate in wider, more advanced positions.
Rather than overlapping the wide forwards, their full-backs tend to stay on their inside to offer an outlet for a pass and protection from turnovers.
Changing De Bruyne's style
With just a "false nine" and midfield runners to aim for last season, there was little encouragement for Kevin De Bruyne, one of the world’s best crossers, to focus on whipping a stream of balls into the penalty area.
Great precision was required from De Bruyne to find his target, and it often had to be a low ball across the face of goal.
Haaland’s towering presence and world-class movement has changed the Belgian’s outlook, offering him a wider range of deliveries to select from.
Averaging 5.79 open-play crosses per 90 minutes, the most in the division and up from 3.88 last season, De Bruyne knows that Haaland is capable of scoring from high or low balls he fires into the box.
Four of his nine assists so far have been for the Norwegian.
Crosses produced 22/23
|PL players||Open-play crosses||MCI players||Open-play crosses|
|De Bruyne||73||De Bruyne||73|
Freed up by the changes to City’s structure in possession, De Bruyne is roaming into pockets of space in those wide-of-centre areas on a more frequent basis.
By the end of 2021/22, Cancelo had supplied 28 more crosses than De Bruyne in open play, but this season the Portuguese has taken a back seat by comparison.
Prioritising service that their new superstar striker thrives on, the Belgian playmaker has taken a lead role.
Altering the press
Man City have always been an outstanding pressing side under Guardiola.
This remains the case this season with no one regaining possession inside the final third on a more regular basis than the defending champions' 92 times.
They also rank second for the number of high turnovers they have produced after 15 matches.
Highest turnovers 2022/23 so far
If the initial press is beaten, opponents are finding it slightly easier to play out through the thirds against City than last season.
While Haaland is not averse to closing down, he does not offer quite as much defensive protection as one of Guardiola’s false nine options, such as Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden or De Bruyne.
Rarely do you see him drop into central midfield to chase down opponents.
Consequently, when the ball is moved towards the middle third City are effectively a player light, and this has made it harder for them to break up play.
Opponents on average string 12.6 passes together before City disrupt them with a defensive action (Passes per Defensive Action or PPDA), compared with 10.1 last season.
This is one minor sacrifice the team has made to accommodate Haaland.
PPDA comparison 21/22 v 22/23
The whole world can see that Haaland’s physicality and brilliance inside the box makes City an even more dangerous team to contain.
They are already more clinical. City’s chance-conversion rate has risen from 19.72 last season to 23.12 per cent this, with the Norwegian himself registering a remarkable 41.9 per cent strike-rate until this point.
His aerial threat also provides a new outlet for their creators.
Last season Aymeric Laporte produced the most headed shots (14) for Guardiola’s men – mainly from set pieces - but Haaland is already up to 12 headed efforts for the season in just 12 starts.
Then there is Haaland’s pace, which means City can make longer, incisive forward passes a lot more often than when operating with a floating false nine who came short.
Clocked at a top speed of 36.22 km/h, Haaland is one of the quickest players in the Premier League.
Therefore it is no surprise that City's three goals from fast breaks this season are more than their two for the entirety of 2021/22. Plenty more are sure to follow.
Scoring on the counter is not easy for a possession-heavy side like City but, with De Bruyne always looking to release Haaland beyond the last defender with a single pass, that threat is always on the mind of opponents.
De Bruyne has produced 14 successful through-balls, compared with 20 in total last season.
If rival teams decide to sit deeper, then Haaland’s predatory instincts inside the box come into play. So there is no fail-safe method of keeping him quiet.
Handling the change
In truth most of City’s key metrics, in and out of possession, remain almost identical to last season.
This is no mean feat considering they switched from having no centre-forward, to building their attacks around a physical No 9.
The champions have made mild adaptations as discussed, but, in essence, Haaland’s introduction has not disrupted the style of play that has made Guardiola’s side so successful.
To their credit, City’s players and staff have handled the tactical changes with ease.