Manchester City: Would signing Erling Haaland, Romelu Lukaku or Harry Kane make Pep Guardiola’s side worse?
As Manchester City prepare to face Chelsea on Saturday in the Champions League final we revist Pete Sharland's feature on their striking dilemma. As they bid farewell to Sergio Aguero should City consider signing a new striker or should they look to continue with this strikerless system that has served them so well.
'A massive achievement' - Guardiola reflects on Man City's title win
Manchester City are champions of England, and come Saturday night they could be champions of Europe as well.
Victory against Chelsea in Porto would be the apex of the City project, the final rung on the ladder they've been climbing since the owners arrived in 2008.
However it is also going to be the final match of one of the club's most influential players. Sergio Aguero is leaving City after the final and is widely expected to join Barcelona. Aguero will go down not just as one of City's best players, but one of the very best we've ever seen in the Premier League.
His influence has certainly waned, manager Pep Guardiola has moved to more of a strikerless formation this season to great effect, but there are already numerous reports that he will be replaced.
Our insider Dean Jones says that City are interested in both Romelu Lukaku and Erling Haaland as they prepare to bid farewell to club legend Sergio Aguero. Of course most recently they have emerged as the preferred destination of want-away Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane.
On the face of it signing one of these two would make City even better than they were this season. Only two players have hit double figures in the league this season, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling with 13 and 10 respectively. Gabriel Jesus, who is yet to really fulfil his potential, has just nine as do Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. By contrast Haaland and Lukaku are the third and second top-scorers in Germany and Italy with 27 and 24 goals respectively. Kane won the golden boot in England with 23.
However it’s not necessarily a forgone conclusion that signing any of those players would make City unstoppable. It may seem counter-intuitive to say but there’s a good reason why City are going to win the league without a recognised striker. The tactical fluidity of Guardiola means that he can get away without one because of the way he uses other attacking players.
Whether it’s Kevin De Bruyne, Mahrez, Foden or Bernardo Silva, Guardiola has proven himself to be an expert by moving his players about and keeping his opponents guessing. Some of the best games City have played this season, against Chelsea, Liverpool and PSG, have come without a recognised forward. The way City press and keep the ball, as well as their movement off the ball, can make it nearly impossible to defend against.
Now, if they were to sign either Lukaku or Haaland they would certainly have a much more focal point of attack, even more so than with either Aguero or Jesus. Both of the potential arrivals are traditional line-leaders, who like to play against the centre-backs and make their lives a misery.
MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 25: Romelu Lukaku of FC Internazionale during the Italian Serie A match between Internazionale v Hellas Verona at the San Siro on April 25, 2021 in Milan Italy (Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
That sort of player certainly didn’t work out for Guardiola at Barcelona when he had Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While the Swede played well and Barca were genuinely successful, the pair clashed over style, although neither Lukaku nor Haaland have the ego of Ibrahimovic. Robert Lewandowski’s first season under Guardiola at Bayern stands as his worst since his first at Borussia Dortmund in 2010; his best years have come under Hansi Flick. Looking at the sample size, albeit a small one, it’s clear that Guardiola prefers using smaller forwards like Aguero or David Villa, or a false nine.
However, if Guardiola, or the people above him, are wedded to signing a striker this summer, then Haaland or Luakaku might actually be a decent fit. Guardiola is known to be an obsessive about football and he will have found Lukaku’s form this year particularly interesting. The Belgian has won plenty of plaudits for the way he has reinvented himself under Antonio Conte, regularly shuffling out to the right during attacks. It allows him to either cut inside and shoot or use his deceptively quick feet to get down the line. It’s a stark contrast to his striking team-mate Lautaro Martinez, who on the face of it might seem like more of a Guardiola striker but is actually more of a penalty-box forward.
Haaland too has made progress in terms of his off the ball play. Some of his link-up play against City in their recent Champions League clash was extremely promising. He’s still a level below Lukaku but don’t forget he’ll be just 21 at the start of next season, whereas Lukaku is about to turn 28. Perhaps Guardiola feels that he can coach Haaland to play the style he wants. Both players are used to pressing and Haaland’s work for his team-mates is increasing by the match as he learns what is required to play as a striker for one of the best teams in the world.
Image credit: Eurosport
In many regards Kane would be the perfect Guardiola striker. He has the physical attributes of Haaland and Lukaku, albeit with noticeably less pace, and his finishing is just as lethal.
However, where he really shines is in his link-up play and his movement in the middle third of the pitch. Remember when Kane first came through there were plenty who thought he would be a goal-scoring No 10. But with his size and the emergence of Dele Alli he was pushed into service as a central striker, and stayed there as the goals kept flowing. Those goals were pivotal to Tottenham, particularly as Alli's form took a dip, he was their primary source of goals.
City don't have that problem, they share the goals around, and that's where Kane could really shine in a Guardiola system. Kane's movement is so intelligent that he could drop into a false 9 or attacking midfield role, creating space for his wingers and midfield runners. His 14 assists this season are bettered only by Thomas Muller (18) across Europe's top five leagues this season, You wouldn't be surprised to see Guardiola try and move Kane out to the left in an attempt to confuse defences, it would be fascinating to watch.
The problem with Kane of course is that he would most likely cost considerably more than either of Haaland or Lukaku, both in terms of salary and transfer fee and he is older than the former. Plus he has been far more injury-prone of either of the other two.
City seem to have hit upon a perfect storm of tactical balance this season, with pretty much every player on the pitch contributing to the attacking phases in one way or another. Bringing in an elite striker would require some tweaking but perhaps it wouldn’t be as much as some think.
There are added benefits as well. The trio would be able to bully defenders in a way that none of the midfielders can do plus it would make them even more dangerous from set-pieces. Guardiola more than anybody knows the benefit of continuing to evolve rather than thinking that using the same method will continue to produce the same results.
Having a bigger striker would be particularly beneficial when you consider the attacking advantage that John Stones, Ruben Dias and Ederson give to a team. Their long passing is useful in getting the faster players in behind, particularly with the close control those players have, but against deeper teams it can be rendered obsolete. Having a target man would give the ball-players further back something to aim at, and of course the aforementioned smaller players can play off their bigger team-mate.
That was the entire thinking behind signing Ibrahimovic after winning the Champions League in 2009 - his skill and size would give Barcelona a different option. Of course that ended up with Barca sending Ibrahimovic to Milan, signing Villa and subsequently winning another Champions League.
City’s hierarchy will assume that Guardiola has developed tactically in the decade since, which he definitely has, the question will be how will he use any of these three. It certainly helps that the trio are less troublesome than Ibrahimovic but they are similar players. If he can figure out a system that works then the rest of the footballing world needs to watch out…