How Erling Haaland has solved the weak spot in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City

Erling Haaland – How Erling Haaland has solved weakness is Pep Guardiola's Manchester City

There have been few discernible technical faults in Manchester City’s play during Pep Guardiola’s reign but, as Erling Haaland scored twice from the penalty spot in the 5-1 win over Wolves, one of them was consigned to the history books.

Penalties have been an Achilles’ heel for City so often under their all-conquering manager, twice barely breaking a 60 per cent success rate and never, until this season, reaching the 80 per cent that is still around five per cent below the accepted mark of success at this level.

Haaland, as he has so many other things in his near two seasons at City, has changed that.

His two spot kicks against Wolves took his tally for the season to eight out of nine attempts – identical to last season’s record – and left the striker with a City career conversion rate of 16 out of 18, nearly 89 per cent.

Those are elite statistics from an elite player – consider City’s all-time leading scorer Sergio Aguero “only” scored 42 of 55 pens, for a 76.3 per cent conversion.

And, given that Guardiola had seen his team miss an astonishing 27 penalties over his seven seasons that preceded this one, the fact that Haaland has rectified the issue is yet another plus for a manager closing in on a fourth successive league title.

“Having mental strength is a skill as well,” said Guardiola. “And the people say, ‘The penalty shooting is down to luck’. No, it’s not.

“If you are a good taker you have a better chance, if you are a good keeper you have a better chance and Erling is, of course, going to miss penalties but everyone knows he is a good taker. He thinks, ‘I am going to take a penalty, I am going to score’. It’s his confidence. That’s right.”

Haaland’s only two misses for City, against Bayern Munich last season and Sheffield United this, have taken his career total to 44 out of 49, for clubs and country, although there were times, even in last season’s treble-winning campaign, when spot kicks raised an issue for Guardiola.

Riyad Mahrez missed twice from the spot and Ilkay Gundogan once, to add to Haaland’s solitary miss last season, while the one season of the last six in which City did not win the league – losing to Liverpool in 2019-20 – saw Guardiola’s team record their lowest penalty strike rate under him, hitting 10 of 16 from the spot.

Any conversation about spot kicks, this season at least, also has to include the note that City exited the Champions League at the quarter-final stage to Real Madrid on penalties last month, with Haaland having been substituted and unable to take part in the shoot-out.

This latest Haaland performance also featured two stunning open play finishes – one a header, one a blistering shot – as his team continued their steely march towards becoming the first team in 135 years of English football to win four consecutive league titles.

There was, briefly, talk at the Etihad on Saturday about City possibly missing a chance to eat even further into Arsenal’s goal difference advantage although Guardiola, correctly, identified that topic as moot.

For him, the maths have been relatively straightforward for some time: anything less than victory in their final three league games will end in failure with, the City manager clearly assumes, Arsenal set to win at Manchester United on Sunday and at home to Everton on the final day.

In that context, it makes the need for late-season “mind games” completely irrelevant ahead of a weekend in which City go to Fulham on Saturday, 24 hours before their rivals visit Old Trafford. For many weeks now, television scheduling has ensured that none of Arsenal, City or Liverpool have ever shared a kick-off time. The perceived advantages of going first or last has long since lost its meaning for City.

“If we play Fulham after or before, we have to win and Arsenal knows they have to win,” said Guardiola. “And not just the starting XI. The staff, the players, the fans, everyone knows you cannot make one little mistake because you will lose the Premier League. They know it, we know it, what happened in Liverpool in the past.

“Today we arrived here and the players knew, ‘Guys if we don’t win, ciao, ciao, bye bye, next season we see each other!’ It’s not complicated. It doesn’t matter if it’s before or after.

“Hopefully we win against Fulham, they will play in Old Trafford, but they [United] play for Europa League. But I said if we don’t win today we won’t be champions, so when that happens it’s easier because you see the level of consistency.

“Since the winter break, the way they [Arsenal] are playing… It’s not the fact that they are winning, it’s the way they play, so you smell that they are not going to lose in the games they have left. They are not going to.”

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