It’s not that hard to imagine Erling Haaland moving to Manchester City and just, like, breaking football.
Since arriving at Borussia Dortmund already a teenage phenomenon, Haaland has scored almost once a game, even if you don’t count penalties (0.92 non-penalty goals per 90 German Bundesliga minutes, if you like your football to two decimal places). Haaland scoring 140 goals for club and country before his 22nd birthday makes Lionel Messi look like a slow learner.
Factor in a growth curve for a striker who’s still years from his prime, assuming his team-mates in Manchester are better than in Dortmund (they are) and that they’ll let him take penalties (they will), and you can see Haaland stomping all over Mohamed Salah’s record 32 goals in a 38-game Premier League season. Alan Shearer is convinced Haaland will score 40.
But competitive English football may not be headed for extinction just yet. For all the justified hype around Haaland, there are just as many reasons to believe this signing doesn’t make sense at all. He’s a Stratocaster in a section of Stradivariuses, a Viking in the monastery, and the slashing style that made him famous didn’t prepare him for the fussiest team in the world. His eye-catching numbers are weighted with asterisks and the tactics aren’t exactly easy to envision. Barring some pretty remarkable adaptation from Haaland and Pep Guardiola, this move could be a crippling mistake.
Here’s the case against the Haaland signing…
Sporting departments don’t sign strikers for what they used to do. They’re paying for future goals. And one of the challenges of recruiting is that the number of goals a player scored in the past doesn’t tell you a whole lot about how many he’s likely to score in the future.
Just ask Timo Werner, who scored 25 non-penalty goals for RB Leipzig at 23 years old, more than all 3,557 players in the top five leagues in 2019-20 except some guy named Robert Lewandowski. Ever since Chelsea won the race to sign him that summer, Werner’s goals haven’t just disappeared, they’ve grown a moustache and gone into witness protection.
To be fair to Werner, his expected goals (xG) weren’t as high as his goal numbers then and they aren’t as low as them now. Shooters create chances at a steadier clip than they finish them, and one reason xG exists is that it’s a more reliable guide than goals to the one thing a buying club really wants: future goals.
That’s bad news for Haaland, who’s got the opposite problem from Werner at Chelsea. He’s scoring too much: 74 goals on 54.5 non-penalty xG in the Bundesliga and Europe, or 36 per cent more goals than an average shooter would be expected to score from the same chances.
It’s easy to believe, watching him treat the back of the net like it wronged his family somehow, that model averages simply can’t do justice to Haaland’s avenging left foot. But even if that’s true — and it probably is! — it’s unlikely to stay that true in the future.