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THIS is just what we needed ahead of the new English Premier League season. Confusion. Uncertainty. Complications. Bring on the bewilderment.
These things are fun. Purists must pretend that they want Pep Guardiola’s studies in precision, but the rest of us want Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
Manchester City’s artists have redefined possession football, forcing anyone beyond the Etihad to begrudgingly acknowledge that that’s what makes them beautiful, sounding like a weary Dad singing along to One Direction.
Because four league titles in five seasons is a tad tedious for anyone not raised on the Kippax. Possession is nine tenths of boredom to those seeking a little variety in their football.
The prospect of a fifth title in six seasons is a testament to Guardiola’s coaching and the largely successful recruitment policies of a foreign power, but it’s also a warning.
Only Newcastle United can financially compete with Manchester City in the deeply uncomfortable PR battle between oligarchs looking to offset today’s human rights violations with tomorrow’s Champions League credits. And the Magpies aren’t ready for the title.
A week ago, another City trophy parade felt a done deal, a sure thing, which is the worst thing for a league forever telling everyone, in that slightly grating, Trumpian tone, that it’s the best league in the world.
And then Erling Haaland showed up in the Community Shield, blonde-haired and wide-eyed, looking like Simon Pegg in "Shaun of the Dead", struggling to make sense of the new world around him. He was zombified, seeking fresh victims but finding none, once Liverpool realised that they could escape his lumbering clutches with a brisk stroll.
Of course, one Community Shield doesn’t make a season, but it wasn’t the ceremony so much as it was the system. Haaland doesn’t fit. Inevitably he will, at some point. When the greatest manager of his generation meets the best young striker of his, then they’ll eventually create something more productive than funny memes and gifs.
But the interim period, that brief interlude between City playing the wrong pass and the right one for the Norwegian, might be the glimmer of hope that the rest of the league needs.
The interim period, that brief interlude between City playing the wrong pass and the right one for the Norwegian, might be the glimmer of hope that the rest of the league needs.
Consider the alternative. Imagine a world where a devastating, fearless Haaland smashed through red jerseys like a runaway bull, knocked in a hat-trick and charged through the opening weeks of the season as team-mates immediately reset old habits and found his surging runs behind the back four. The season could be effectively written off now.
Other clubs might as well put up local council signs on their immaculate pitches. No ball games allowed. There’s no point. There is no game. An EPL led by a Haaland-fuelled City is not a game. It’s a procession.
Fortunately, City’s new signing endured a proper, old-fashioned stinker in the Community Shield, the kind of non-performance usually found in a school game because the PE teacher gives the kid who collects the jerseys a sympathetic runout.
Haaland managed only 16 touches. In most dominant, elite sides, that’s a disappointing number. For Manchester City, it’s harrowing. The possession-obsessed Guardiola gets more touches returning balls on the touchline.
But the rap sheet gets worse. No headers won, no dribbles, no interceptions – the latter a particularly damning misdemeanour in a Guardiola line-up – along with just seven completed passes, Haaland and City appeared to be a tactical mismatch.
In terms of aesthetic spectacle, Guardiola brought a battering ram to the ballet. Haaland had the self-conscious air of a nightclub bouncer in a tutu. He looked out of place. He wanted to be elsewhere.
Of course, to thoroughly belabour the point, seasons are not defined by the Community Shield, but the match could leave an impression on the opening weeks.
Jurgen Klopp has been involved in a similar course correction with Darwin Nunez, insisting that the old guard must adjust their instincts to suit the newcomer. He called on them to head out wide. Make the crosses and give the Uruguayan a shot at getting close to his impeccable scoring ratio at Benfica.
It worked in the Community Shield. It didn’t for Haaland. Perhaps the learning curve is faster for Nunez because Klopp has signed another player, like Luis Diaz, who fits into an established, successful system, allowing the Liverpool manager to rotate similar options.
Guardiola isn’t doing this. In fact, he’s doing something that almost goes against his coaching instincts, his artistic snobbery even, as if he’s sending a painting contractor in to whitewash the Sistine Chapel. He didn’t sign Haaland for the neat, colourful intricacies of the EPL, but to make a splash across the big, brash Champions League.
And it’s wonderful in its unpredictability. For the first time, Guardiola doesn’t know. How can he? He’s never previously needed to accommodate a striker who completed just seven passes across 90 minutes. And Haaland has never bounced around an unfamiliar environment for so long, like a moth trapped in a kitchen, trying to find a way out.
And while they seek answers to these existential, tactical questions, Nunez and Diaz pass the baton among the established forwards in Liverpool’s front three. Antonio Conte drills his Tottenham automatons until they don’t fold like Tottenham anymore. Raheem Sterling gets a chance to build a relationship along the left flank with the returning Ben Chilwell at Chelsea. And Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko can prove Guardiola wrong by reaching their playing peaks at Arsenal.
They may not all succeed. But they all have a little time perhaps, a luxury that was denied them last season, when City scored 99 goals and acquired 93 points, ensuring that Liverpool’s 92 points were not enough to secure the silverware, a preposterous scenario.
They must hurry though. Their window of opportunity is small, arguably the time it takes for Guardiola to fit Haaland’s square peg into City’s round hole. It’s hard to tell. And that’s the best bit. We just don’t know.
City must be considered the title favourites because that’s the bare minimum expected of a club funded by an oil-rich state, but nothing is guaranteed and that’s all we ask for. The promise of a two-horse race, at the very least, has to be welcome.
Only a handful of impatient readers jump to the final page, to bring about an early ending. The rest of us want to wait. It’s the unknown outcome that truly compels.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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