OK. This might take a while. Just talk among yourselves. For Erling Haaland this was a debut not just to forget, but to shred, incinerate and bury at the bottom of the garden. Haaland looked limb-weary by the end of this clammy high-summer Community Shield final, a curtain-raiser for a stage that has scarcely been cleared of tables and men in brown coats.
For much of the second half at the King Power Stadium, Haaland skulked and mooched in the centre circle. With seconds left he produced a wonderfully wholehearted miss, clumping his shot off the top of the bar with all the easy grace of a man toe-poking a crumpled beer can into a hedge.
Most of the time Haaland looked like what he is, an entirely different kind of player to his teammates, and a man who will of course need time, regardless of his record to this point. It is no secret Manchester City’s outstanding summer addition lacks fitness, but this is more an issue of fitness, of his own tessellation with the way City play.
There would have been no great gain in doing the things Haaland did here more energetically, in being ineffective with a greater intensity. By the end he had taken 16 touches, won zero headers, made no interceptions or dribbles, completed seven passes, and produced a willing but ultimately futile exercise in trapped energy, like an oversized fly bobbling its way down a window pane.
New team, new style, new plans: but these are remarkable numbers. Has any player ever played 90 minutes in a Pep Guardiola team and completed seven passes?
In the event Haaland was upstaged by Darwin Núñez, who came on with half an hour to go and made one and scored one in Liverpool’s convincing 3-1 win. Núñez provided an obvious counterpoint, a footballer instantly at home in Liverpool’s very defined idea of what a front three should look like. He ran hard through the middle. He looked direct and clear in his mind. As a case study in buying a player who clearly suits your pre-existing attacking style this was pretty compelling stuff.
The King Power had been a muggy, sweaty place at kick-off. The noise was raw and weirdly unbound, as though everyone present had just woken from a summer fever dream to find themselves pitched unexpectedly right back into this thing, this world, this energy. Which is, let’s face it, pretty much what has happened.
The sight of Haaland on the City team sheet was an instant adrenaline spike: all those vowels, the symmetry of the consonants. Even his name is a unit. With 11 minutes gone he had his first proper City touch, coming deep to take a throw-in and trapping the ball with all the deftness of a man trying to catch a tennis ball in a frying pan.
For a while he looked a little lost in this team of interlocking pegs. It is easy to become blasé, to forget that City play a type of football that is unlike anything else, a pressure wave where the movements repeat and multiply, the parts revolve and elide. Let’s chuck a baseball bat into the middle of that and see how it goes.
City’s starting formation was a fluid 4-1-4-1, with only Rodri and Haaland keeping to a distinct part of the pitch ahead of the defence. But they were overrun at times. City always have too many players on the pitch. Here, for the first time they seemed not to have enough. It seems a facile observation, it is also true: the big advantage of not playing with a striker has been that extra man, the extra angles, the extra passing option. Control, possession, making a friend of the ball. This has been everything. How easy will it be to find new patterns?
Liverpool took the lead through Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deflected shot, and for most of this game looked the more coherent, more grooved team. For City the issue isn’t so much that Haaland was bad (he was) or that he looked a mismatched part (he is). Everybody knows this, no one better than Pep himself, who knows this in vivid, granular detail.
This issue is how long will this bedding-in last, and what form can it take? Can Haaland simply walk through it? He might have the look of an indestructible force of engineered sporting will. But form and confidence are not inexhaustible substances. And the Premier League is a brutal kind of theatre.
At the end Guardiola brushed away questions about Haaland’s lack of sharpness. “He has incredible quality,” he shrugged. This is of course correct, and it will be fascinating to watch exactly how his manager tries to bring this out. On the evidence here there is at least reason to be glad of one thing. Guardiola really does love coaching.