Erling Haaland was back amongst the goals in the Premier League, scoring twice as Manchester City beat Leeds United 3-1 at Elland Road.
Haaland’s lucky break
Had the World Cup not been in the winter this season then Erling Haaland might have missed more than the two games he did sit out for Manchester City before the break.
The Norwegian was struggling with an ankle problem after taking a knock in the goalless draw at Borussia Dortmund on October 25, missing the next two games and starting none of the next four. So painful was the issue that he could still only train once when the Blues went to Abu Dhabi in December for a week of warm-weather training.
Had the season been progressing as normal then the 22-year-old might have needed a longer period of rest. He could have missed four, six, eight games or more in what is usually the busiest few weeks of the campaign.
Instead, he was resting his ankle. Initially in Marbella and then back with City. He had time to get the problem in order and return to peak fitness. This was no repeat of the muscle injury that dogged his final season at Borussia Dortmund, but simply a painful knock that needed a bit of rest.
The break in the season has certainly worked in City’s – and Haaland’s – favour. He’s scored three goals in two games since the resumption and could easily have had five alone at Elland Road.
He’s missed very good chances inside the first 45 seconds in consecutive games now and Islan Meslier denied him three times in one-on-one duels on Wednesday night. But Haaland still came away with two goals and he now has 26 in 20 games for City. It’s an astonishing record and, unfortunately for the rest of the Premier League, the World Cup has come at the perfect time for him.
Rodri’s perfect timing
Had City gone in at half-time still goalless they would have been disappointed, but a combination of poor finishing and a lack of a clinical touch in the final third threatened to thwart them throughout the first half.
Haaland had missed two one-on-ones, Jack Grealish spooned two presentable chances over the bar. In the end, on the stroke of half-time, it needed a defensive midfielder to sort it out.
Rodri joined a City breakaway to find the final pass to Riyad Mahrez, but predictably his finish was saved by Meslier. Thankfully, Rodri had followed it in, perhaps expecting one of City’s forwards to miss, and he was able to bundle home the rebound.
It felt like a big goal at the time and so it proved, with City turning the screw in the second half.
Lewis aids City’s press
Rico Lewis has been outstanding for City in his limited opportunities so far, but the aggression in his approach to pressing is one of the best facets of his game at the moment and with a more defensive-minded left-back it is allowing City to get higher up the pitch.
When Leeds had possession in deep areas at Elland Road the Blues lined up a 3-4-1-2, with Nathan Ake alongside Manuel Akanji and John Stones, while Lewis went into midfield and was on his toes to press immediately if the ball was played to Leeds’ left.
He did the same against Liverpool last week, winning possession against Andrew Robertson at times and generally doing an excellent job of boxing Jurgen Klopp’s side in when they tried to play out down that side.
The 18-year-old, who became the youngest player to start in the Premier League for City in 16 years, offers much more than that, but it does feel like he is almost the prototype Guardiola full-back. Aggressive and committed when pressing high up the pitch, good in transitions and more than capable of slotting into a holding midfield role.
Playing out from the back
There was a passage of play around the 16-minute mark at Elland Road that felt like it was this game in a microcosm. Guardiola had talked up the aggression of Leeds before the game and when City tried to play out from Ederson they suddenly swarmed all over those in the red and black shirts.
But City never panic in these circumstances and although Leeds kept getting bodies into what was the visitors’ left-back area, they kept finding passes. Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji and Ederson worked the angles and eventually, City were able to find a crossfield ball to Lewis and the break was on.
The move eventually fizzled out in the right corner but it showed the risks and rewards for City that comes with a trip to West Yorkshire.
Title race talk
Before kick-off at Elland Road there was plenty of discussion as to whether defeat here would spell big problems for City in the title race. It is, after all, a time of year usually dominated by talk of the situation at the top of the table.
But as we all know by now, this season is unlike any other and although City won’t be top on New Year’s Day, they are still less than halfway through the season. In fact, this was only their 15th league game. They have 23 still to play, as do Arsenal.
That leaves an awful lot of twists and turns to come and as impressive as the Gunners were on Boxing Day, there is plenty of room left for manoeuvre this season, whatever happens over the festive fixture list.
It was easily forgotten that City had actually lost their last Premier League game, 47 days ago against Brentford at the Etihad. They’ve had to wait a long time for the chance to put that right but they did so impressively against Leeds. On this evidence, City are in it for the long haul.