It took less than two minutes at Stamford Bridge for Pep Guardiola, dressed for a mild January night in a Captain Haddock outfit of navy blue roll neck and chunky black shoes, to appear on his touchline and begin whirling his arms in a series of lightning-fast rotational gestures.
Guardiola whistled and pirouetted. He summoned Erling Haaland and machine-gunned him with tactical instructions. Haaland nodded. What was Pep saying here? Look a bit more menacing? Walk around a bit more? At this stage the game was 90 seconds old.
Sometimes it feels as though Guardiola just loves to find puzzles, twists, snags to unknot. Haaland is a fascination of a different kind, a player so ready-made, so streamlined in his skill set that putting him in a Guardiola team is a bit like presenting Steve McQueen with a self-driving motorbike. Fine. But what do I get to do? Even in his post-match press conference, Guardiola began to talk about playing with a false nine for most of his career. Solving Erling. It feels at times as though this will be his whole season.
And for a while Haaland found himself at the edge of this messy, difficult, gripping game that ended in an excellent 1-0 win for Manchester City. Excellent because it felt like the kind of grudging victory that alarms your title contenders. And excellent because for the opening 45 minutes City played like a team of jet-lagged imposters, ranged in a hyper-cautious, weirdly-narrow formation against a Chelsea selection so depleted that by the end blue-shirted players of increasingly junior appearance kept entering the pitch; a teenager here, an eager, baby-faced youth there (and Lewis Hall, who is 18, looked really sharp).
Through all this it was also a fascinating game to watch Haaland. He didn’t score, didn’t create a goal, didn’t have a shot on target; but from a state of almost total invisibility he still ended up having a highly encouraging game. He touched the ball 31 times in 70 minutes. He played the full 90 but it took all of 20 minutes for him to get his first actual touch. Often players do a lot of good hidden work in times like these, create space by occupying space, move the opposition around and all the rest of it. Haaland didn’t really do any of that. He waited. He lurked and mooched. Was he actually playing football in any meaningful sense?
City looked oddly constipated. They didn’t press, they passed the ball uneasily. There was a lack of width once again, one player stuck to each touchline where so often in the past City have swarmed in numbers, driving the whole game out to the flanks.
Guardiola had picked his A-listers here; Phil Foden starting his first City game since 12 November. But what was this thing exactly? A kind of wing-back formation, with Foden as a floating left-sided shuttler? Who was playing with Haaland, or fleshing out the Haaland-shaped space while he waited to get involved? For a while it was Ilkay Gündogan. Then it was Kevin De Bruyne. Then it was no one.
And then finally there it was, 20 minutes and 47 seconds in: Haaland on the ball by the corner flag, bouncing Marc Cucurella away like a man flicking a flake of dandruff from his shoulder. There was almost a sense of anti-climax about this. Thomas Sweswe Langu once played 90 minutes for Kaiser Chiefs without touching the ball once, so there are levels here.
Haaland even had a chance with 37 minutes gone. Bernardo Silva made it with a driving run and nice threaded pass. Haaland’s movement was wonderful. He took one touch with his left. The second, a half stride later, was a shot thumped hard into the Matthew Harding stand.
At half time Guardiola changed the game, and did so with some very Pep-like changes, removing Kyle Walker and João Cancelo and bringing on Rico Lewis and Manuel Akanji: City had by that stage used six defenders , eight if you count the two makeshift wing-backs. But it worked. Suddenly they were all over Chelsea, pressing high, winning the ball back repeatedly. Nathan Aké hurled himself into challenges, headed on to the bar.
And suddenly Haaland had found a way to play. He ran constantly, came deep, linked the play. He looked angry at times. On the hour mark he made a startlingly swift, shark-like run, feeling the goal ahead of him, the day starting to break open. Aké turned and payed the ball out to the left wing. Haaland howled and held his arms out.
But City were playing like City now with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez in the wide positions, and three minutes after coming on they combined to create the only goal. The cross from Grealish met no resistance in the Chelsea area and found Mahrez on the far side, who smashed it into the net. Grealish has three assists in a week now. The City fans sang about Super Jack. He puffed his chest out.
What to make of this? By the end City did look like a fluent attacking force, and Haaland like a willing runner, a man finding a way in real time to play in this team, a way to link and move with City’s flank players. It is still a learning process. For six years the whole game, the City story, has been based around those overloads in attack, the extra man, the extra angles.
This sleeker version is new for everyone. Here we have a team with 10 Pep-issue parts and one bolt on goal-hammer. Haaland is a killer. Is a killer always what you want? This is a major shift of texture for everyone else in this team. Little wonder there will be periods of drift, static, interference. Victory here, and victory with Haaland just another shoulder to the wheel, felt like another step towards solving this thing.