Manchester City have achieved so much since Pep Guardiola arrived in 2016. In 2017-18 alone they set new Premier League records for points in a season (100), consecutive wins (18), and total goals (106). They’re the only team to win back-to-back titles (and they’ve done it twice) since Manchester United made it three in a row 2006-09, a joint-record tally City find themselves chasing this season.
And they’ve achieved those feats despite playing extended periods with no recognised centre-forward, often opting to use attacking midfielders as makeshift forwards.
Now they have one and Erling Haaland is hunting for some records of his own. The Norwegian has already scored more goals than any City player has ever managed in a single campaign and, having netted 32 times in 28 Premier League appearances so far, he is on course to become the greatest goalscorer the competition has ever seen in a single season.
Man City have eight games to play and Haaland needs just one more to break Mohamed Salah’s record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season and three to break the 34-goal record shared by Alan Shearer and Andrew Cole for most goals in a single Premier League campaign.
And with 48 goals in all competitions, he’s already broken the record for the most competitive goals scored by a player for a Premier League in a single season (44 – previously shared by Ruud van Nistelroy (Man Utd) in 2002-03 and Salah (Liverpool) in 2017-18).
In the process he is looking to become just the second City player, after Sergio Agüero in 2014-15, to win the Premier League Golden Boot and the first since Pep Guardiola’s arrival.
But is that a good thing?
The ‘Has Haaland made City worse?’ question is one thing but the other elephant in the room is the fact that the Premier League’s best teams have not had the Premier League’s best goalscorers for a long, long time.
Just two players won the title and the Golden Boot in the Premier League’s first seven seasons, with Blackburn and Alan Shearer top of the two respective piles in 1995 before Manchester United and Dwight Yorke (as joint-top scorer) repeated the feat four years later. It became more common in the 2000s, with Thierry Henry (twice), Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and Dimitar Berbatov all claiming the individual accolade alongside a league winners’ medal. But then, suddenly, it stopped with Robin van Persie and Manchester United in 2012-13.
A decade has passed, and the league winners have not once provided the league’s top goalscorer.
It’s fair to say football has changed in that time. Dominant possessional and positional play has taken over at top clubs all over Europe, in no small part thanks to the journeys of Pep Guardiola. With patterns of play mapped out before a game even begins, the individual talents of a focal point up front are no longer needed.
Defences are also better drilled, both when sitting deeper and when pressing higher upfield. First off, this all means teams need to be less predictable in attack, often meaning rotation in the frontline. Secondly, it means top teams don’t often choose to accommodate pure goalscorers who do not serve the team’s needs.
So the Golden Boot winner has often come from clubs with a spectacular forward who everything is geared towards in the final third — think Harry Kane under Mauricio Pochettino, Jamie Vardy at Leicester, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Arsenal – or a player who functions as part of a super-charged attack, like Luis Suárez or Mohamed Salah at Liverpool.
But not a title contender whose attack is fuelled by the output of one man like City and Haaland this season. The Norwegian has, astonishingly, scored 41.8% of City’s Premier League goals so far in 2022-23. Their second top scorer is Phil Foden on nine. Julian Alvarez has seven, and nobody else has scored more than five.
Only two players – Alan Shearer (42.5%, 1994-95) and Thierry Henry (41.1%, 2003-04) – have ever scored over 40% of their team’s goals in a title-winning campaign and Haaland is on track to equal Henry’s share. Indeed, in the time since Van Persie became the last league winner to win the Golden Boot, Harry Kane’s 2017-18 campaign is the only time a player has scored at least 40% of their team’s goals and even finished in the top six.
Even Salah, in that incredible 32-goal season, had Roberto Firmino (15 goals), Sadio Mané (10) and Phillipe Coutinho (seven in half a season) help carry the load in the final third, rather than becoming a sole, predictable source of goals. Indeed, the following season saw Salah and Mané share the Golden Boot.
Looking at City’s own history and Haaland’s contributions stand out even more. The highest proportion of goals scored by a single player in one of City’s title-winning seasons is Agüero (24.7% in 2011-12) and the highest in a City side led by Guardiola is Agüero again, in 2018-19, when he scored 22.1% of the team’s league goals. The same team, with the same manager, had eight players score seven or more times last season and six players do the same in 2018-19 and 2020-21. Their league titles under Guardiola have been the ultimate collective effort. And in this era of shared responsibility in front of goal, it is even more remarkable that, if City go on to win the title, Haaland is on track to net the third-highest share of goals of a single player for a title-winning team in Premier League history.
But does it all actually mean they are unlikely to retain their title? Well, if Arsenal continue their erratic recent form then City will win the title without much fuss. But, let’s presume Mikel Arteta’s side do bounce back. Focusing on just Pep’s team for a moment, while still potent, City are spending more time away from the opposition box than before and have become more predictable, with players rotating positions less often, sticking to their zones to accommodate a true number nine up top who rarely drops into midfield and does not drift from between the width of the posts.
City still control matches, but they are not doing it as far up the pitch as before and it has made them a touch less dangerous, with the team’s shots, expected goals and goals all down on last season.
It seems silly to think a team could add Haaland but become less dangerous when going forward but it tallies with the way title-winning teams have been constructed over the course of the last decade, with goalscoring duties spread across strikers, wide players, and midfielders.
The output of every offensive City player is down this season, plus they lost three forwards in Ferran Torres (last January) and Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus last summer. It is one hell of a burden for Haaland to carry.
In order to integrate Haaland without sacrificing any of the control Guardiola demands, City have gone from playing like an unpredictable, deadly attacking machine to relying on a predictable one. They are still more than good enough to win the league, but it would be an unusual way to do it and the team they find themselves chasing are sticking to the formula that has served Guardiola and City so well in recent years.
With no player currently at the club capable of hitting the 30-goal mark in a single campaign, Arsenal have had Gabriel Jesus or Leandro Trossard drifting from the number nine position and Mikel Arteta has found a very Guardiola-like way to squeeze more goals out of Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and even Granit Xhaka.
Three Arsenal players would be City’s second top scorer this season, one would be joint-second top. And even Leandro Trossard, who joined in January, would be City’s third top goalscorer with eight strikes. The Gunners’ title charge is being fuelled by that goal burden being shared just as City have shared it in their pre-Haaland era.
Only a huge shock would now deny Haaland the Golden Boot but whether he can defy the league’s trend and win the title is still up in the air. Ahead of Manchester City and Arsenal’s potential title-deciding clash this week, the Opta supercomputer gives City a 78.1% of winning the title. If they do, then Haaland may well beat the record 42.5% of a title-winning team’s goals netted by Alan Shearer almost two decades ago.
If City and Haaland can make it work that well already, in his first season with the club, the next few seasons should mean plenty more Golden Boot-Premier League doubles, and plenty more broken records to boot.