After 35 minutes of Manchester City’s dominance at the London Stadium, in which they had 85% possession but little in the way, Erling Haaland exploded into life.
Ilkay Gundogan was the catalyst, spinning smartly as he received Joao Cancelo’s pass into a pocket of space on the left, but it was Haaland’s electrifying pace that saw him reach the German’s forward through ball Alphonse Areola and win the City penalty.
It was the first glimpse of Haaland’s extraordinary physical qualities, the power and acceleration that help make him such a formidable opponent, and it was followed by an example of his finishing ability. His penalty taken coldly tucked into the bottom corner.
Haaland’s second goal, midway through the second half, exhibited the same attributes. Another impeccably timed race between Ben Johnson and Kurt Zouma. Another clinical finish. “Unplayable”, said sky sports expert Gary Neville on the co-comment.
Haaland’s winning performance made it a simple afternoon for City. It also provided a first hint of just how high the Norwegian could elevate this already brilliant side.
It was all about patience and time to adapt after last weekend’s Community Shield loss to Liverpool.
Haaland’s poor performance in that game, in which he only touched the ball 16 times and missed a glorious scoring chance when he hit the bar from close range, allowed Pep Guardiola to lay many questions ahead of his Premier League arc.
“I don’t know how many goals he will score and I don’t care,” the Manchester City manager said during his press conference. “We are not going to win for Erling and lose for Erling. He has to be himself.”
What better way to silence skeptics than this?
“A week ago he couldn’t adapt to the Premier League,” Guardiola said smiling to the press after the game. “And now he’s alongside Titi Henry, Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Guardiola was highlighting how quickly narratives can change, but he will struggle to contain the excitement around Haaland now.
His goals made him the second Manchester City player to score twice on his Premier League debut. The first one? Sergio Aguero. Early evidence suggests they now have a striker capable of taking over for the Argentine.
This does not mean that everything went well for him.
In the first half, he misjudged a cross from Phil Foden when he was well placed to score. He then slipped too late to drive home a second-half cut Kevin De Bruyne, hampering better-placed Gundogan in the process. There was also a glorious opportunity for a hat-trick, led by Jack Grealish’s delivery.
But the encouragement for City is that Haaland was almost always where he needed to be, his commanding presence confusing West Ham defenders throughout and giving City’s supporting forwards an ideal target in and around the box.
West Ham, their defense depleted by injuries, had no answers.
Haaland had five shots in his 78 minutes on the pitch – more than twice as many as anyone else – and also ranked first for throw-ins in the opposition box with 10.
This is where he is most deadly, but his performance was more than a goal threat.
His commanding presence alone was enough to create uncertainty in the West Ham defence, distracting his teammates to either side of him and creating space to exploit.
“Haaland gives them a different option,” said sky sports expert Roy Keane afterwards. “It’s another weapon that we have now,” Guardiola added during his press conference.
“City pass, they played with West Ham,” Keane continued. “But even when teams push, Haaland will threaten behind now. It will be a different challenge for defenders now with Haaland behind. West Ham haven’t coped.”
Others will find it just as difficult.
Haaland struggled to come into the game against Liverpool but he linked play effectively here, showing a willingness to drop into midfield and cushion passes into the feet of his teammates with their backs to goal and then bombard forward to join the attacks.
In total, he found a teammate with 21 of his 23 passes, giving him a 91% success rate. He might even have had an assist had Declan Rice failed to scramble his skillful flick for the pressed Grealish shortly after half-time.
What’s really scary, of course, is that it’s only just begun.
When then asked where the 22-year-old could still improve, Guardiola revealed a long list of areas. “He said it himself,” he said. “His finish with his head, his right [foot]his left, his control, his understanding of the game, his movement according to what he has to do.”
In other words, there’s a lot more to come.
Haaland has big-stage personality – that was clear in his post-match interview with sky sports when he swore in response to a question about missing a hat-trick – and it’s clear he’s got the quality too.
After the final whistle at the London Stadium, Haaland was the latest Manchester City player to turn away from the spirited traveling supporters behind goal as they expressed their appreciation for what Guardiola described as an “outstanding” performance. Early evidence suggests it could become a recurring sight.
Neville: Haaland has absolutely everything | Keane: He could score 40 goals
Speaking after the game, sky sports Specialist Gary Neville has compared Haaland to Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of the overall threat he offers.
“There are few players you see who have absolutely everything,” he said. “The physique, the strength, the power, the finishing, the understanding, the timing – they are unique.
“You could play against a Zinedine Zidane or a [Cristiano] Ronaldo when we were playing and we think: ‘I can’t do anything here’.
“There will be defenders in the Premier League who won’t make mistakes and are helpless. He’s too strong, too fast. It’s almost unfair competition.
“He’s unplayable. He’s a giant and he’s still young, so if he stays fit the others will be in big trouble.”
Roy Keane added: “Great quality, great running, great movement. He’s going to have chances.
“The fact that he’s on penalties means he could score 30 or 40 goals this season if he stays fit and healthy. He’s got so much quality around him. Good luck defenders.”
Haaland: It’s a good start | Guardiola: He adapts perfectly to the way we play
Talk to sky sports afterwards, Haaland offered a low-key assessment of his performance.
“It was a good start,” he said. “It’s still early in the season so it’s good to have minutes in the legs. We saw the potential against Bayern [in pre-season]. Against Liverpool it was a bit behind, but that will come with the games. Passes will come. It should have been more today, but it’s a good start.
“It all depends on connections in daily training and practice. We’ll get better than that, I’m not worried.
“It’s a great moment for me to make my debut in this competition – we have to keep going. It’s been almost 30 minutes since I scored my last goal, so I have to keep going.”
Guardiola added: “Erling to score both goals is important for him and for us, but we had no doubts about a guy who has been scoring goals since birth. It will always happen for him.”
When asked if Haaland gives City a new dimension, Guardiola added: “What he gives us are his qualities.
“We’re not going to change much, just adapt because now we have a threat there – an amazing runner and a special finisher.
“He adapts perfectly to the way we play and we will find him more. Hopefully we will give him scoring opportunities.”