THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Ridiculous Footballer Is Ridiculous
It's October. It's early October. And yet Erling Braut Haaland already has 19 goals for the season, 14 in the Premier League and five in Europe. He's scored these 19 goals in 12 games, incidentally, which means he's motoring along at just over 1.5 goals a game. Stretch that out over a season and we're talking Messi numbers. Dixie Dean numbers. An actual cricket score.
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This poses a number of problems. For defenders, first of all. Against Copenhagen last night, Haaland scored with his first touch, and then scored again on the half-hour mark. He was denied another hat trick only by Pep Guardiola's decision to remove him at half-time, and by Davit Khocholava's panicked shank into his own net. It is, of course, impossible for us to say with any confidence what was going through Khocholava's head as the ball deflected to him, and then off him, but we're betting it went something like: 'oh no oh no, oh no, he's behind me'.
But it also poses problems for everybody else. For a start, there's a very real danger that we'll have used up all the normal superlatives - amazing, outstanding, ridiculous - by the end of the month. At that point, we'll all be able to make a round of Halloween jokes - oh no, Guardiola was the scientist; this is Guardiola's Monster - but after that, we've got a serious problem. He poses an existential threat, not just to the record books, but to the dictionary.
Consider Jack Grealish. After the game, he told BT Sport that "It’s unbelievable, honestly, I’ve never ever witnessed anything like it in my life. For the first and second goal, I was just laughing because I was like, 'how?', because he’s always there, he’s always finishing it, and yeah, he’s a pleasure to play with at the moment". We're not disagreeing, but we are worried. We're already at 'unbelievable'. There's nothing beyond that, but numbness.
This is compounded by the nature of Haaland's supremacy, which doesn't really lend itself to poetry. As a neutral, Haaland's compelling, in the same sort of way a video of a tree falling over is compelling. Crash, thump; hooray! But as a footballer, he breaks the fundamental aesthetic principles of his position. The big man up top isn't supposed to be this precise or this productive. There should always be an element of disjointedness about their efforts, the panic of King Kong at the buzzing airplanes. Haaland just picks up the skyscraper and knocks them out of the sky before continuing with his day.
We were thinking about this feeling of slight incorrectness when Opta tweeted the graphic below, and suddenly it all made sense. What we're dealing with here is two footballers in one. He contains both parts of the ideal striking partnership: the earth-shaking presence of the big man and the snaffling goal sense of the little man. It's as if Miroslav Klose, faced with a terrible threat to the end of the world, has strapped himself into one of those mech suits from Pacific Rim and clanked forth to punch Godzilla in the face. Except here Godzilla is some poor innocent central defender just trying to get through the day.
This riff was slightly undermined when we looked up Klose's height. Six foot! But we're happy to roll with it, on the basis that he had little man energy. (We will not be taking on questions on what that means.) In any case, this rather proves our broader point. A falling tree, King Kong, a mech suit… we're in deep trouble. The descriptions are already getting out of hand, and the clocks haven't even gone back yet.
Meanwhile, Reece James...
We'll say this for Graham Potter, he knows how to play it cool. If The Warm-Up had been suddenly and unexpectedly placed in charge of Chelsea, we'd have spent the entire of yesterday running around shouting "It's Milan! It's AC Milan! Football Italia! Paolo Maldini! Aaaargh! Van Basten! Kaka! Aaaargh!"
Just one of the many reasons why we felt we had to turn Todd Boehly down. But we did appreciate the call.
Of course, AC Milan now aren't quite the full celestial experience they once were: rather, this is a team built on potential, on youth and clever margins. But they are a dangerous side, which makes last night's victory for Chelsea a very good one for all sorts of reasons. Practically speaking, it steadies their European campaign, nudging them into second place at the halfway mark.
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More broadly, this win had the feeling of a team starting to coalesce into something greater than its parts. Chelsea moved the ball quickly, threatened from all angles, and over the course of the evening they essentially overpowered Milan. At times, the final pass went to the wrong place, or the runners got in each other's way: that will all be smoothed out in time. But here, in Potter's third game in charge, we saw perhaps the first glimmerings of what Chelsea are aiming for.
And the key point of that blueprint? Get Reece James involved. Obviously, since this is a World Cup year and England is England, everything James does over the next few months will be folded into the ongoing argument about England, right-backs and Trent Alexander-Arnold. But if he keeps playing like this, it won't be much of an argument. Liberated by Chelsea's switch to a back three, he took clear and total possession of the entire right flank, managing to score one, make another, and keep Rafael Leao quiet for almost the entire game.
A pet theory: it's easier to look impressive as a wing-back than almost any other position on a football pitch. By design, there's almost always a lot of space to run into, and defensively there should always be cover. We don't mention this to disparage James in the slightest; quite the opposite. He looked great even to us, and we never take wing-backs seriously. And of all the accolades and trophies coming his way, none will compare to that.
IN OTHER NEWS
Beyond the actual results, last night's edition of the Champions League turned into a self-contained Goal of the Week competition. Cue the Lightning Seeds. Here's Jude Bellingham adding another 10 million euros onto his transfer fee.
Here's Lionel Messi, who is spinning up to something like his best just in time for the World Cup.
And here are Real Madrid, tippy-tappying their way through Shakhtar's defence. Obviously, it's a lovely goal, but really, there was another pass on at the end there. A chance to rack the multiplier up even higher. And Benzema had done all that running around the outside, and he's getting on a little.
Over to Daniel Storey at the i today, as he does his best to satisfy our insatiable urge for news of the Danish Superliga. Tell us about FC Nordsjaelland, we cry. We hear they're completely redefining the very idea of what a football club should be! Tell us about that! And so he does.
He tell us that this is a young side. "The numbers are almost unbelievable. The average age of the first XI in the league last season was 20.7 and 33-year-old Kian Hansen started 25 matches. The 16 players used in a league game last month contained six Danish-born players aged 21 and under, one each from Sweden and Finland, three Ivorians and one Ghanaian. All 12 of those were aged between 18 and 21."
He tells us that this is a side built on an unusual sense of the collective, even to the point where the players are free - and actively encouraged - to tell their manager where he's going wrong. "[Flemming] Pedersen explains that the best compliment a player can give him is to criticise him in front of the group because he believes that demonstrates a courage of conviction and the trust in him to take that criticism on board. It wouldn’t work for every manager to have their authority so regularly challenged, but then Pedersen is not working in normal circumstances."
This extends right through to the architecture of the club. "One of the unique elements of Nordsjaelland is that literally everything is housed under one roof. The young players live in their accommodation here. The men’s and women’s teams of all ages train on the first-team pitch and are all permanently based at the stadium. Every member of off-field staff, from data analysts to coaches to media to accountants, works here. In the evening, the CEO will often be seen in the restaurant by reception eating with her family as other parents eat with their children on the next table. Again, it’s deliberate."
You want another dubious Haaland comparison? Well, you're getting one. It's like somebody put Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips in the same body. That little and large combination scored more than 40 goals in 1998-99, as Sunderland came up to the Premier League, and then another 40-odd the next season as they stayed up in style. Obviously, Haaland will be scoring his 40th before Christmas, but the point stands.
Anyway, it's Quinn's birthday. Here's him and Phillips taking Chelsea to the cleaners in 1999.
Anderlecht vs. West Ham! Omonia Nicosia vs. Manchester United! Arsenal vs. Bodo/Glimt! Bless the Europa (Conference) League(s): the football's good, and the syllables are great. The brackets are, yes, a little awkward.
Assuming he can get away from the Erling Haaland Comparison Laboratories, Andi Thomas will be here again tomorrow.
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