Erling Haaland was a giant who made a couple of Arsenal colossi in the middle of the goal

Gabriel seemed determined to disrupt his personal mission – Getty Images/Darren Staples

He was the most passive-aggressive square up you could ever see. Erling Haaland, fresh from a 90-minute substitution with Gabriel Magalhaes, crossed to the Brazilian so well that Pep Guardiola had to separate the pair. Still, they barbed each other, these two smiling antagonists, before they exchanged a kiss that looked very awkward on stage for the cameras. Motif enough, it was said, for a game in which Manchester City’s Nordic assassin was strangely saddened, and Arsenal took little pleasure in shooting the gaps.

Nothing signaled City’s impotence so clearly as they strung together 690 passes and failed to produce a single shot to trouble David Raya. And Haaland was at the heart of this Sisyphean work, a giant who picked through the eternal attention of Gabriel and William Saliba. If Norway looked furious at the final whistle, it was because the duo had not so much nullified it as neutralized it.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Erling Braut Haaland with Arsenal's Gabriel after the matchManchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Erling Braut Haaland with Arsenal's Gabriel after the match

Haaland’s post-match embrace with Gabriel appeared to be staged for the cameras – Reuters/Carl Recine

On a cool spring evening thick with thwarted hope, Gabriel and Saliba became the first centre-back partnership in the Premier League to restrict Haaland to zero shots twice in the same season. In fact, if you put in the People’s Shield last summer, they have managed it three times this campaign, over four hours of football. Roy Keane had, frankly, had enough. “His general level of play is so bad,” he said. “In front of goal, he’s the best in the world, but in his normal play he’s almost like a Tier Two player. That’s the way I look at it. He needs to improve his overall game.”

Even by the standards of Keane’s acid language, it was scalding. Haaland, let’s not forget, hit records for fun in his first season, achieving 50 top-flight goals in 17 games less than any player since the start of the Premier League. There is an argument that only the endless worship of Lionel Messi, far from the heart of the game in Miami, prevented him from winning the Ballon d’Or. Is it really legitimate for the former Manchester United captain to criticize him, a few months later, as a fourth-tier secretary?

Keane’s main purpose, clearly, is to inspire. But Haaland’s ineffectual performance was frowned upon throughout the Etihad. With six minutes remaining, his moment came, when Josko Gvardiol headed Kevin De Bruyne’s early corner across the face of the goal and into his path. Except four yards out, he just connected with thin air. Until recently, such a cry would have been unthinkable from this extraordinary center. Now, however, at the point when City should be moving up through the gears, Haaland has been stymied for nothing.


Haaland ‘like a Tier Two player’: Roy Keane’s decline analysis

Read more

We need some perspective. Haaland has heard all the scathing criticism before, shrugging off labels like “fair-track bully” and “tap-in merchant” with on-court disdain. But there has been a late falling out between the talisman who scored five FA Cup goals at Luton and the player who has disappeared from sight on the biggest occasions. At Anfield three weeks earlier, he had failed to make much of an appearance. This time, he was muscled out of the entire frame.

Gabriel, in particular, looked like he was almost taking on Haaland. You could tell who was holding the right-hander when, in the dying moments, he stood just inches from the striker’s face as he was accused of diving. Saliba, likewise, applied himself so expertly that when De Bruyne’s late corner was headed in by Haaland, it was the Frenchman who got the better of it. Each defender alone was a threat. But it was the telepathy, which made England’s most feared center-half double act, that was truly amazing.

The strength of the Gabriel-Saliba dynamic is the bedrock on which Arsenal’s title challenge is built. Their talents complement each other: where Gabriel is the self-styled “animal”, timing his interventions with panther-like precision, Saliba calls himself a “machine”, and his main thing is his pride from the unceasing struggle. It is not that they are immovable lumps of stone behind. They are far more adventurous in possession than Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure ever were when Arsenal were last so strong defensively.

Manchester City's Erling Haaland, centre, duels for the ball with Arsenal's William Saliba during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the EtihadManchester City's Erling Haaland, centre, duels for the ball with Arsenal's William Saliba during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad

Haaland couldn’t escape Saliba’s attention – AP Photo/Dave Thompson

It was their collective display that gave Mikel Arteta’s side more substance, reinforcing their confidence that they could stand up to their toughest opponents yet. In contrast, the city has reason to worry about Haaland. The signs of his slump were evident in the Manchester derby where, despite his contribution to the third goal, he also missed to end all misses from point-blank range. Having scored in nine of his first 15 league games this season, he has looked a sharp imitation of his usual swaggering self since returning from a stress fracture in his leg, with goals in three outings nine games. Not exactly “League Two”, to use Keane’s hyperbole, but an undoubted alarm for Guardiola.

Haaland’s post-match confrontations with Gabriel suggested someone desperate to rediscover his snarl. As the decisive run begins, City need him to reassert his star role. Instead, it is easily overwhelmed by competing defenses. His trials are the same as those of his team, where standards have fallen at an inopportune time. But the credit must ultimately go to Gabriel and Saliba, who worked so admirably together to defend City’s formidable predator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *