Erling Haaland ends rare goal drought to save soporific Manchester City against Everton

Erling Haaland is swamped by his teammates after scoring  (EPA)
Erling Haaland is swamped by his teammates after scoring (EPA)

The striking Viking had stopped striking. Erling Haaland had gone two-and-a-half months without scoring. None of Manchester City’s previous 39 goals came from him. And if a strange statistic stemmed to a large part from a foot injury that sidelined him for 10 games, Haaland had gone 392 minutes without finding the net: unexceptional for many a forward, almost uncharted territory for him.

With him starved of service, City had brought up 70 minutes without a shot on target against Everton. They scored from their first two: both courtesy of Haaland. The drought ended with a show of force. There was a sweet connection through a crowded penalty box meant that, even though Jordan Pickford got a hand to it, he could not keep it out, a barnstorming solo run where Jarrad Branthwaite was brushed aside before he steered a shot past the goalkeeper. Haaland 2 Everton 0 and, however briefly, City were top of the table, their run of successive victories in all competitions extended to 10. Without being particularly good, they prevailed anyway. But that is the difference a goalscorer can make.

And City’s latest victory owed something to two men who had bit-part roles: Haaland because his teammates did not find him, Kevin De Bruyne because his manager did not pick him. The Belgian had no direct role in Haaland’s opener – it was Julian Alvarez’s corner that Rodri met with a header James Tarkowski stopped before the Norwegian let fly – but he set up the second. It was a quick counterattack: Nathan Ake to De Bruyne, the assist king to the scorer supreme. Branthwaite bounced off him, Haaland in full flight looking unstoppable. Pickford was left helpless by the accuracy of the shot.

But De Bruyne also changed the game. Pep Guardiola’s decision to rest the Belgian reflected a packed schedule, a Champions League tie on Tuesday and a need to be careful with his creator-in-chief. Yet had City drawn, it may have been deemed a complacent decision that backfired. In De Bruyne’s absence, the champions lacked invention, with only Phil Foden offering the hint of a spark, with Alvarez and Matheus Nunes proving utterly ineffectual as the two No 10s. Not for the first time, the Portuguese looked like a rare misstep by City in the transfer market.

The match amounted to an impasse for almost an hour until Guardiola sent for Kyle Walker and De Bruyne. The vice-captain added urgency and ideas, providing a presence, and almost adding an injury-time goal with a lob that landed on the roof of the net. Guardiola played his trump card and it worked.

Erling Haaland, left, celebrates scoring his second goal with Kevin De Bruyne (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)
Erling Haaland, left, celebrates scoring his second goal with Kevin De Bruyne (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)

There are days when City are so slick it underlines the theory they have the best team in the division. There are others when simply having the outstanding creator and scorer are enough. This belonged in the latter category.

City were soporific and subdued at the start. Everton were first encouraged by their own organisation and obduracy and then handed a result their manager can recognise all too well. There are one-sided rivalries and then there is Guardiola against Sean Dyche. The Catalan has 17 wins in 18, 13 in a row. Yet the Englishman orchestrated a close contest: at times, his fingerprints were all over a remarkably uneventful affair, even from afar.

As nothing happened for swathes of time, it was a sign of Everton’s inner Dycheness that they could perform like a Dyche team even with their banned manager sat in the stands. In his stead, Ian Woan barked orders from the edge of the technical area. If that was incongruous, there was the more familiar sight in Dyche’s two banks of four. Everton were compact and coordinated, content to play a game of patience while the valiant Tarkowski went through his repertoire of blocks.

City played with the ball, Everton without it but the Merseysiders had the only shot on target in the opening hour. It was the first time in 18 months City had not tested a visiting goalkeeper before the break at home. Pickford went unoccupied for the 25 minutes after the restart too and, in a week where Everton hope to get some points back, when the verdict of their appeal against their 10-point deduction will be announced, they could start to imagine clawing one back on the pitch, too.

Yet it was not to be. Everton’s recent return now stands at three points from seven games, their record against City at three in 14. While Haaland’s wait for a goal ended, Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s now spans 18 games. His replacement, Beto, had the ball in the net but appeared oblivious to the offside law. City had spared De Bruyne, Walker and Bernardo Silva a 90-minute runout and they head to Copenhagen with the most prolific Scandinavian of them all back in scoring form.