Share this @internewscast.com
It’s Pep Guardiola’s spin on Murderball, the old Marcelo Bielsa training free-for-all. A quarter of a pitch, three teams of seven, offside only enforceable in the final few yards before goal. There don’t appear to be fouls or a referee, only physios sticking their hand up along the touchline if anybody is goal-hanging.
Manchester City have been doing it for some time and it can be manic, a constantly evolving winner-stays-on game with teams rotating which one of them stands and watches from the sidelines.
Highly-rated 17-year-old centre half Max Alleyne featured earlier this week; there might not be a more forensic test of a youngster’s ability in world football. Goals flew in, Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva swearing furiously as Sergio Gomez thumped past Stefan Ortega.
The Portuguese pair gesticulated while trudging past two others who had been reduced to skulking about themselves. Yellow-bibbed, the inseparable duo Erling Haaland and Jack Grealish had been in the ear of Lorenzo Buenaventura as the fitness coach checked his watch. Effectively asking when it was their turn, over and over again.
Haaland started darting on when he thought orange bib’s Kevin De Bruyne had found Ederson’s corner, then drooped over a pole as he was left disappointed like a forlorn puppy. Soon he was barging over Maximo Perrone like a bull, shoulder-to-shoulder with scary strength, Perrone barely able to retain his balance.
Erling Haaland (middle) showed his strength in Manchester City’s version of the ‘Murderball’ training drill
Haaland (middle) sulked on the sidelines while he waited for his turn to join in the training drill
The Norwegian’s (right) friendship with Jack Grealish (left) has taken some by surprise but has added a new dimension to City’s existing dynamic
Haaland and Grealish cannot stand being on the periphery of anything. Their close relationship has taken sources by surprise – one known to like a party, the other obsessed with blue-light glasses and napping – but definitely added a new dimension to City’s existing dynamic.
Coincidentally, they live on the same floor at an apartment complex in the city centre, one where they can come and go from a secluded entrance without fuss. Haaland demanded Grealish pose for celebratory pictures with him at Wembley last weekend – ‘Jack, are you coming or what?’ – and swore while saying ‘I love you’ as he gate-crashed an interview after the title win. Equally, Haaland is happy playfully pointing out the difference in their adaptation at City.
‘I told Jack that sometimes players need maybe a year or something to come into a new league and new team,’ Haaland says, delivered deadpan with a stifled smirk. ‘And sometimes players come directly in and perform… I told him this. So, yeah, there was one game, the Community Shield. I missed a couple of big chances.’
That day at the King Power Stadium – when City lost against Liverpool and Haaland fluffed his lines on debut – feels a long time ago. Fifty-two goals ago; a first season in English football for the ages ago.
In the days after the Community Shield last July, there was more than a bit of talk about whether Haaland would fit in a Guardiola set-up.
Others said Darwin Nunez, who had scored off the bench, would prove a better deal. One lad who once had a bit-part role in Eastenders, now earning a living making a series of outlandish viral remarks about various topics, went on television to say any suggestion of Haaland winning the Golden Boot was ‘disrespectful to the Establishment,’ whatever that means. Nobody from Eton has passed comment yet. He added that 15 Premier League goals would represent an ‘unbelievable’ season.
Anyway, the coaches at City were consuming all this completely dumbfounded. Haaland was too. ‘It can happen, it will happen again,’ he says. ‘What can you do? Nothing. We have to focus on the next thing, the next game and that’s what I did. I scored two goals in the next game [at West Ham], so it was still not a bad start.
‘I’m not stupid, I get [there are] things with me. I don’t read anything because I think my brain would be a bit crazy. Often it’s a good thing when people start criticising you. I scored every single game and then people started criticising me. That’s what happened basically. It’s just about trying to smile a bit and enjoy life.’
Haaland was doubted by some critics during his early days at Man City but has since shined
Haaland looks supremely comfortable in the worldwide stardom that his goals have generated
Haaland (left) and Grealish (right) have forged a strong relationship both on and off the pitch at Man City this season
Haaland has been a regular on TV in England but is speaking to the newspapers for the first time since arriving. A narrow media pen bursts at the seams. Six rows deep, there are reporters stood on chairs in an attempt to yell questions across to the Norwegian.
He looks somewhat bemused by this, wearing a look of slight confusion as inquisitors shout over each other for the entire six minutes he stands the other side of a barrier.
But he is comfortable. He is comfortable with the stardom, that at 22 he already has the allure of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo. Haaland understands that he is a piece of meat, like the South American cuts he cooked up for himself at City’s title party in the kitchen of MNKY Hse.
Guardiola’s dieticians, who witnessed him gorge on a seafood buffet on pre-season tour in Wisconsin in a way they had never seen before, have apparently adapted the eating rules slightly for him, while Alfie Haaland’s lucky pre-match lasagne is off the menu this week given City flew out to Istanbul on Thursday.
His son has baked defenders everywhere this season, scoring 12 in Europe ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Inter and a shot at the Treble. And he is not shy of admitting that there is one major reason why City brought him to this club. This is it, Saturday. What he is here for.
There was a time at the start of the season when some suggested Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez (left) would turn out to be a better signing than Haaland (right)
Simplistically, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest Haaland can prove the difference between nearly men and conquerors. Not even for the amount of goals scored – that overall number is broadly the same as last year – but when they are scored. City have endured fewer days when they have wasted golden chances on the biggest stages because the main man barely allows for that when it really matters.
‘It [to be the difference] would mean everything, of course,’ Haaland says. Not just for the individual acclaim and what it means to a group of players who have come so close. With Haaland, the club holds a special place.
He had kits from all of Alfie’s clubs – including Nottingham Forest and Leeds United – but seemingly more of them were sky blue. He’s pottered about on Maine Road as a toddler. He celebrates every goal as if he is in the stands. There is a connection here that cannot be ignored.
‘Of course I feel pressure. I would lie if I said I didn’t,’ he says. ‘You say it yourself and it’s true — they won every trophy without me. So I’m here to try to do a thing that the club has never done before and I’ll do my best.
‘If you’d said this scenario before the season I wouldn’t think of it, of course. But, again, when you look at the team, how close they’ve been with every single trophy every single season it’s not like it’s been not possible.
Man City have won everything without Haaland but the Champions League still eludes them
Haaland laughed off questions about his recent goalscoring exploits after bagging just once in seven games
‘I didn’t expect to score this many goals but I could have scored more. I’ve been missing a lot of chances, so I could have scored more. That’s the truth.’
It is actually only one in his last seven appearances, although some of those have been off the bench and with the league title already sewn up. Haaland was actually criticised during the FA Cup final, a product of expectation, but occupied Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof in a way that unsettled them both – further proof that he has improved as a traditional No 9.
But, one in seven? Haaland brought the dry spell up himself. When pressed on it, however, he becomes a little smart. ‘You can think of it as one goal in seven games or 52 goals in 52 games and eight assists, I think. You can think of it in both ways. I’m not stressed. I feel really good.’
With a grin, he is off. Off for more people shouting at him, off to see autograph hunters swarming his Rolls Royce at the gates, off to find Jack Grealish. Off, maybe, to write his name into City history.