Erling Haaland poses a problem for the professional writer. Most of the time, it doesn’t do much. Run towards the ball. Run away from the ball. Walk around and wait.
He had a total of 26 touches, which is quite a lot by his standards, but still comfortably short of goalkeepers. Discussion of the Haaland effect thus becomes an unsatisfactory binary, centered around one capricious question: did he score or not? If he did, his contribution would likely be decisive. If not, I’ve spent 90 minutes watching a tall, blond guy look at things.
The point is, Haaland is one of those completely insignificant players, until the moment when he’s not. With six minutes remaining in this slow, tight combustion Champions League A team game You can forgive if you fail to remember a single contribution he made.
Instead, it was John Stones and Judd Bellingham – a man who plays off-center, and a man who plays every-position – the clear protagonists.
Stones provided the moment, and fell into a tie from a distance. In the early signs of the season, this isn’t Pep Guardiola’s best team, nor his prettiest, but it could be the most exciting. There was a prevailing opinion on social media between the breaks that this was a rather boring game. But city games can’t really be boring. The danger is also there, the threat is always implied, if not always called, the team is very talented, very capable of strange and unspeakable feats.
Whatever you think you’ve covered, they can always find another way to hurt you. And here were the stones, with echoes Vincent Kompany vs Leicester And many past Alex Ferguson teams, who rose to the occasion.
Borussia Dortmund hit their best shots for sure. They held tight, closed spaces, and weren’t bothered by the ball as many teams do against City. Niklas Süle tried step by step on the edge of his area. Emre could read a dangerous cross from Kevin De Bruyne and not only pulled away or hacked it, but sent it to one of his teammates. Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez were simply running at the same dead end, crashing inside into traffic, a comedy double made up of two straight men with no line. Bellingham, the illustrious and elegant presence in Dortmund’s midfield, put them ahead with a header. On the touchline Guardiola looked surprised and unsurprised, like a man who had just read the nutritional information on the back of a can of Vimto.
Enter Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden. And as Dortmund slipped from their ranks, there was a mysterious epic quality to their back guard. Visiting fans beat to a jerky tribal rhythm. Mats Hummels cut a cross just as Haaland was about to pounce on it, greeted with slaps in the back, slaps and goal-worthy celebrations. But even this was like saying: an acknowledgment of the smallness of their margins, and the sheer enormity of their mission. Just keeping Haaland quiet for 75 minutes seemed like starring action. Bad news: There are still 15 people left.
And what to say about that goal, really? Perhaps it was not a goal so much as an achievement in architecture: a full frame lifted off the ground, the left leg raised like a ram, and João Cancelo’s magnificent cross thrust from a great height. Perhaps there is a contradiction in the fact that Haaland can seem so marginal and then come to an end like this. But then you realize that those long minutes spent jogging and pedaling softly are at the service of these moments: the conservation of energy, the exhaustion of defenders, the patience that is its devastating form of self-belief.
This is not the game City used to win, or at least not the way they used to win. But they have done it more and more recently: Arsenal are far from last season, Aston Villa in deciding the title And here again, the return of victory borne by the pure aura, the mental fortitude of the team that has conquered the mountain so many times that they no longer really know how to lose.
Perhaps that is why Guardiola’s team is the most interesting. There is little flourishing or splendor of its predecessors. Nothing spoils and nothing is lost: a small band that knows their jobs and does enough. A satirist might call them a flawed team, a team of moments, and maybe even a betrayal. An optimist might argue that this football is distilled to its purest and fullest essence.