If it was a ‘What Happened Next?’ teaser on A Question of Sport, the guessing team would have probably lost a point.
Erling Haaland was through on goal, with only the goalkeeper to beat and a couple of defenders trying to make up ground. With the goalkeeper rushing out, Haaland took a step to his left and looked to have a shot on between defender and ‘keeper.
On countless occasions this season, Haaland has shot – and probably scored – a chance like that. You’d put your money on him scoring, especially after spurning a similar chance minutes earlier. Here, though, he passed to an unmarked Phil Foden, who converted to put Manchester City ahead at Brighton on Wednesday.
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It was a welcome first goal in five for Foden, but perhaps more significantly it represented an evolution of Haaland’s forward play. An acceptance that maybe he doesn’t have to do it all himself.
With 52 goals to his name this season, Haaland is starting to give back to his teammates. In his last 13 outings, Haaland has 4 assists, almost doubling his tally from the previous 38 appearances. Overall, Haaland has nine assists for the season, with eight coming in the Premier League, and his 44 overall goal contributions are a joint-record high in a 38-game Premier League season along with Thierry Henry in 2002/03.
Pep Guardiola has challenged Haaland’s all-round game to improve over the course of the season, and Haaland himself has insisted that he can add more to his game. The Bayern Munich and Arsenal games in April were examples of how effective the striker can be coming deep to drag a defender out of position and allow a teammate to run into space.
Midfielder Rodri summed up that steady improvement as the season goes on, speaking after Haaland’s latest assist at Brighton.
“He’s been incredible for us this season. Not only for the fact that he’s been scoring goals but also that he wants to learn and improve and fit into the team,” he said.
“I watch him now and he’s not playing in the same way as he did at the start of the season. He can drop, he can play one touch, he can keep the ball, he can turn, he can score – many things. He is so young, and he has the hunger to keep improving.”
Improvements for Haaland will obviously be adding more assists to his game – although his Brighton assist puts him joint eighth in the Playmaker rankings this season alongside Bruno Fernandes, Martin Odegaard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ivan Perisic. One more in the final three games of the season and Haaland will reach 10 assists in his debut campaign – and if he does it at Brentford on Sunday he will take that record outright from Henry in terms of total goal contributions.
Other improvements could come from scoring more from outside the box – he’s only scored once so far from beyond the 18-yard line – and maybe the Brighton chance was an example of when he could have pulled the trigger from outside the area.
In opting to pass to Foden, though, in a split-second decision to be selfless rather than selfish, Haaland has shown he is ready to be more than just a goalscorer for City.