With 64 minutes gone at a chokingly hot London Stadium Erling Haaland killed this Premier League game with a goal that carried its own dreamy sense of deja vu. It was a goal that already felt like a repeat, like something emerging out of traces in the air, a bend in the space-time continuum. How many times has this happened, that rangy, slanted figure, veering in from the right, the sense of a familiar reel of film playing out?
Haaland’s second goal of this game, the second of his Premier League debut, felt like confirmation of the old truism. Knowing what your opponent is about to do is one thing. Actually being able to stop it is something else. And Haaland was very good in this 2-0 defeat of West Ham, really very good indeed after the clumsiness of the Community Shield game. Even better, he was good in a way that was entirely his own. Adaptation you say? Fine, yes, good. But how about we just score some goals first.
It felt significant that West Ham had begun to commit players forward before that decisive moment, chasing the game at 1-0 down. Suddenly there was space. No, really. You don’t want to leave space. Kevin De Bruyne picked up the ball 15 yards inside the City half with grass in front of him and time to start measuring the distance, the physics, the moving objects in his arc. Haaland had begun to sprint – and not just to open up a gap or create a diversion, but running towards goal, radar fixed. He collected the perfect pass through the perfect channel, veered just enough to his right, switched feet and slid the ball past Alphonse Areola.
There was a clarity to this, an equation that will repeat: the pass, the run, the precisely metered acceleration. For all the talk of changes of style, what City have already is a devastating counter punch. This was Haaland Mk 1, the man who devours space. Even City’s yellow away shirt looks a little Dortmund-ish.
And by the end it was a comfortable afternoon for the Premier League champions, victory achieved at arm’s length for all West Ham’s occasional waves of fury. At kick-off it had been 30 degrees in east London, the sun dipping below the roof of the stand, half of the London Stadium pitch in hard yellow high-summer sun. Understandably there was a sense at times of players taking a touch, keeping the ball, allowing themselves to breathe.
Haaland moved a lot in those opening exchanges. He didn’t have many touches, but there were endless arcs, feints, dummy runs. His best moment early on was barging on to a backpass and almost forcing a kind of panic-chance. His worst was failing to make contact with a header after a neat cross from Phil Foden, the ball seeming somehow to pass straight through his head.
But he made the run that made the opening goal with 34 minutes gone, and it was a lovely little miniature. Watch Haaland walking: he lopes and trudges. Watch him start to run and something else happens, he becomes all grace and spring and power. Areola came belly flopping out at his feet and jacknifed him to the grass. Haaland took the penalty, of course.
Now. Where was this going to end up? The finish felt like something to be brushed aside, a mere prelude to the celebration. And yes, he did the Lotus pose, a nod to his own fondness for meditation, but something else too. Haaland likes to talk about the noise around him. The noise is a weight to be shaken off.
But the noise is also good. The noise is what his star trajectory, his vast potential earnings are based on. Watching Haaland in this City team he seems at times to be all pounding legs and pumping arms, like watching Tyson Fury trying very hard to tap dance. There will be an urge to see the absences, the lack of decorative edge, the way he differs from the extreme technicians around him. But the strengths are just so extreme at moments like these. Reducing the game to those repetitions, the angles, the duels where he becomes essentially unstoppable, is how he will succeed.
What he offers also is comfort, a sense of power in reserve, as though a boxing champion’s stylist has also concealed a horse shoe inside his glove just to make sure. And in many ways his signing is consistent with the way this City team has evolved in the last two seasons. Bringing in a genuine razor edge fits with the reining in of twin full-back advances, the obsession with stifling counterattacks.
It is as though, 20 years into his coaching career, Pep Guardiola is arriving at his most pared-back version of how to win, like the aged Picasso learning to draw forms in the starkest of lines – but with skinnier trousers and a useful series of semi-connected sponsorship deals. Two goals and a sense of something beginning to clarify: Haaland already looks set to run and run.