There was another Erling Haaland Moment at the weekend. If you didn’t see what happened, I’m afraid I’m going to spoil the ending for you: he scores. The moment came about 20 minutes into Manchester City’s game at Brighton when Ederson sent forward a long goal-kick. Haaland chased it. Robert Sánchez, Brighton’s goalkeeper, came and missed it. All that remained was Haaland and the Brighton defender Adam Webster, shoulder to shoulder, vying for the ball.
Football has a familiar and established lexicon for describing what happened next. You could say Webster “lost out”. You could say he “came off second best”. You might even say he was “shrugged” or “muscled” off the ball. And yet somehow none of these phrases would really do justice to what happened. Webster just sort of … detonates.
The cartoonish force of the impact sends him not only sprawling, but then sliding for several yards – face down – across the turf. Webster is 6ft 3in. He’s good. He does this for a living. But here he’s no more than human debris, a plaything of Newtonian physics, a plate of cupcakes in the path of a Range Rover.
And so, a question. It has been a common trope for commentators and pundits remarking on Haaland’s spectacular start to the Premier League season that they are “running out of superlatives” to describe him. What happens when we run out of nouns and verbs as well? Assessments of his first season in English football have essentially been reduced to a counting exercise, any attempt at meaningful analysis reduced to Match of the Day punditry level, in which one simply describes the thing that everyone else is already watching. Well, here, Gary, we see Haaland kick the ball and do a goal. He has lots of goals, Alan adds. You did a lot of goals in your time, Alan, Gary replies. Everyone laughs.
There are many different elements to the Haaland phenomenon. Most intriguingly of all is the reaction from within City: a team of equals now confronted with a player so bracingly different and better, a coach slowly realising that this is not his team at all but the team being built for the next guy. You see it in the way City’s midfielders scurry around trying to make space for him, wary of getting too close, having furtive little chats by the touchline to share notes. What is this guy? What does he want? Is he staying for breakfast?
Then there is the external reaction, veering somewhere between the breathlessly awed and the bizarrely overawed. Last month the Times informed us that Haaland is “a man of creature comforts”, citing a recent shopping trip when he bought – and I quote – “a kettle, two pedal bins, four wine glasses and a handful of plastic bowls”. Such bestial opulence!
Which is kind of diverting, for a time. But there comes a point – it may already have arrived – when the novelty begins to wear off simply watching a big guy slide-tackling the ball into a goal again and again. How long are we meant to carry on gawping and gasping at this thing? What will be the appropriate level of whooping reverence when Haaland is still doing this in, say, 2025? And what does it mean, really, for this guy to be doing these goals in this team at this moment?
There is a fair amount of subjectivity involved here. For City’s fans, still essentially concussed from the sheer pace of change of the past 14 years, the lack of sense makes a perfect, crystalline sense in its own right. From Shaun Goater to this guy, via Pep Guardiola and two of the most dramatic comebacks in the history of English league football. No, we don’t know how any of this happened, either. But it helps not to think about it too much.
But there is at least a kind of romance to City’s rise, those long decades of ignominy, a sense of struggle and journey and backstory. Haaland, on the other hand, has very little of this. This is a story about as free of struggle as it is possible to imagine: not so much a footballer as an investment project, grown from footballing genes, reared and hot-housed, moulded and managed and manoeuvred around Europe from Norway to Austria to Germany to Manchester with a clinical, cynical precision. He exists for two reasons alone, which are really the same reason: to score goals and generate revenue.
This may be why so many people were desperate for Haaland to fail in English football, particularly after that indifferent debut in the Community Shield. It is the same reason we love stories about former lottery winners who end up getting divorced, or descending into madness, or squandering the entire fortune on dresses and alpacas. We wanted to see him pay some sort of price for so visibly winning the tombola of talent, to extract some fleeting sliver of human frailty, some friction; any friction.
Which may come to pass. But for now Haaland is doing what he wants, for a club that is essentially doing what it wants, owned by a state that whether extinguishing free speech or showing solidarity with Putin’s Russia, simply does what it wants. Perhaps this is the real meaning of Haaland at City: an object and breathtaking lesson in the impunity of power, a vision of a future in which an Erling Haaland boot is stamping on a Kevin De Bruyne cross, for ever.