After 35 minutes of Manchester City dominance at the London Stadium, during which they had 85 per cent of the possession but little cutting edge, Erling Haaland exploded into life.
Ilkay Gundogan was the catalyst, turning smartly as he received Joao Cancelo’s pass in a pocket of space on the left, but it was Haaland’s electrifying pace which allowed him to reach the German’s through-ball before Alphonse Areola and win City’s penalty.
It was the first glimpse of Haaland’s extraordinary physical qualities, the power and acceleration that help to make him such a formidable opponent, and it was followed by an example of his finishing ability. His coolly-taken penalty nestled in the bottom corner.
Haaland’s second goal, midway through the second half, showcased the same attributes. Another impeccably timed run between Ben Johnson and Kurt Zouma. Another clinical finish. “Unplayable,” said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville on co-commentary.
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Haaland’s match-winning performance made this a straightforward afternoon for City. It also provided a first clue of just how much the Norwegian could elevate this already brilliant side.
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There was talk of patience and adaptation time after last weekend’s Community Shield defeat to Liverpool.
Haaland’s poor performance in that game, during which he only touched the ball 16 times and missed a glorious scoring chance when he hit the bar from close range, ensured there were plenty of questions for Pep Guardiola ahead of his Premier League bow.
“I don’t know how many goals he’ll score and I don’t care,” snapped the Manchester City manager in his press conference. “We are not going to win for Erling and lose for Erling. He has to be himself.”
Image: Erling Haaland celebrates scoring for Man City vs West Ham
What better way to silence the doubters than this?
“One week ago, he could not adapt in the Premier League,” said a smiling Guardiola when he faced the press after the game. “And now he is alongside Titi Henry, Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Guardiola was pointing out how quickly narratives can change but he will find it difficult to contain the excitement around Haaland now.
His goals made him only the second Manchester City player to score twice on his Premier League debut. The first? Sergio Aguero. The early evidence suggests they now have a striker capable of taking on the mantle from the Argentine.
That is not to say everything came off for him.
In the first half, he misjudged the flight of a Phil Foden cross when well placed to score. He then slid in too late to turn home a Kevin De Bruyne cut-back in the second half, obstructing the better-placed Gundogan in the process. There was also a glorious opportunity for a hat-trick, headed over from Jack Grealish’s delivery.
But the encouragement for City is that Haaland was almost always where he needed to be, his hulking presence unsettling West Ham’s defenders throughout and giving City’s supporting forwards an ideal target in and around the box.
West Ham, their defence depleted by injuries, had no answers.
Image: Haaland's heat map and attacking stats against West Ham
Haaland had five shots over the course of his 78 minutes on the pitch – more than twice as many as anyone else – and also ranked top for touches in the opposition box with 10.
It is there that he is most lethal but there was plenty more to his performance than goal threat.
His towering presence alone was enough to create uncertainty in West Ham’s defence, drawing attention away from team-mates either side of him and creating space to be exploited.
“Haaland gives them a different option,” said Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane afterwards. “He is another weapon that we have now,” added Guardiola in his press conference.
“City’s passing, they toyed with West Ham,” continued Keane. “But even when teams push up, Haaland will threaten in behind now. It’s going to be a different challenge for defenders now with Haaland running in behind. West Ham didn’t cope.”
Others will find it similarly difficult.
Haaland struggled to get into the game against Liverpool but he linked the play effectively here, showing a willingness to drop into midfield and cushioning passes into the feet of team-mates with his back to goal, then bombing forward to join attacks.
Image: Haaland is mobbed by his City team-mates after scoring
In total, he found a team-mate with 21 of his 23 passes, giving him a success rate of 91 per cent. He might have even had an assist had Declan Rice not managed to scramble away his deft flick for the onrushing Grealish soon after half-time.
What is really scary, of course, is that he is just getting started.
Asked afterwards where the 22-year-old can still improve, Guardiola reeled off a long list of areas. “He said it himself,” he said. “His finishing with his head, his right [foot], his left, his control, his understanding of the game, his movement depending on what he has to do.”
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In other words, there is a lot more to come.
Haaland has the personality for the big stage – that much was clear in his post-match interview with Sky Sports when he uttered an expletive in response to a question about missing out on a hat-trick – and it is plainly clear he has the quality too.
After the final whistle at the London Stadium, Haaland was the last Manchester City player to turn away from the buoyant travelling supporters behind the goal as they sounded their appreciation for what Guardiola described as an “exceptional” performance. The early evidence suggests it might become a recurring sight.
Neville: Haaland has absolutely everything | Keane: He could score 40 goals
Roy Keane analyses Haaland’s performance
Speaking after the game, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville likened Haaland to Zinedine Zidane and Brazilian forward Ronaldo in terms of the all-round threat he offers.
“There are few players you see that have absolutely everything,” he said. “The physicality, the strength, the power, the finishing, the understanding, the timing – they are unique.
“You could play against a Zinedine Zidane or a [Brazilian forward] Ronaldo when we were playing and think, ‘There is nothing I can do here’.
“There will be defenders in the Premier League who won’t make mistakes and be helpless. He’s too strong, too quick. It’s almost an unfair competition.
“He is unplayable. He is a giant and is still young, so if he stays fit, the rest are in big trouble.”
Roy Keane added: “Great quality, great running, great movement. He’s going to get chances.
“The fact he’s on penalties means it could be 30 or 40 goals this season if he stays fit and healthy. He’s got so much quality around him. Good luck to defenders.”
Haaland: It’s an OK start | Guardiola: He is adapting perfectly to the way we play
Haaland reflects on his debut against West Ham
Speaking to Sky Sports afterwards, Haaland offered an understated assessment of his performance.
“It was a good start,” he said. “It’s still early in the season so it’s good to get minutes in the legs. We saw the potential against Bayern [in pre-season]. Against Liverpool it was a little bit down, but it will come with games. The passes will come. It should have been more today, but it’s an OK start.
“It’s all about the connections in training everyday and practising this. We’ll get better than this, I’m not worried.
“It’s a big moment for me, to make my debut in this competition – we have to keep going. It’s been almost 30 minutes since I scored my last goal so I have to keep on going.”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola praised Haaland on his debut
Guardiola added: “Erling scoring the two goals is important for him and for us, but we didn’t have any doubts on a guy that has been scoring goals since he was born. It’s always going to happen for him.”
Asked if Haaland gives City a new dimension, Guardiola added: “What he gives us is his qualities.
“We’re not going to change much, just adapt as now we have a threat there – an incredible runner and a special finisher.
“He is adapting perfectly to the way we play and we are going to find him more. Hopefully we will give him opportunities to score.”
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