Manchester City will miss Grealish – so the return of peak Haaland is perfectly timed

Good news and bad news for Manchester City at Luton. First, the bad news: Jack Grealish’s injury is a genuine blow to their title hopes, because they will need him fit and in form to play their best, most stable football.

But the good news is that if Erling Haaland plays like he did last night, they might not need to be at their best.

Haaland scored five goals in the 6-2 win at Kenilworth Road, the first four of them from Kevin De Bruyne assists, but looked reinvigorated elsewhere, too, charging down loose balls and barging defenders out of the way, like he does at his rampaging best.

Erling Haaland scores his first goal at Luton (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Football, certainly Guardiola’s football, is not simple. The difference between City being very good, which they are almost every match, even when they lose, and one of the best teams of all time is that they have a perfect balance.

Last season, to fully embrace Haaland’s power, they needed to shift things around a bit. Haaland and De Bruyne did the rampaging, so Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri kept things tight, using the ball a bit more carefully, winning the duels. And they needed John Stones to move up from defence to help out, too.

There was a lot of compensating for Haaland’s especially direct threat and although it took a few months, it eventually resulted in a treble.

The thing about this season, particularly early on, is that most or even all of those players who keep things ticking over have been missing, and their replacements have often been direct threats like Phil Foden, Julian Alvarez and Jeremy Doku.

The result has been a very potent team but one which is a little less capable of controlling matches.

That will have been what Guardiola was referring to when he mentioned Grealish’s “special quality” on Tuesday. “I said from day one: we need him, he has a special quality for our team. We need him.”

Guardiola has been disappointed with Grealish this season and that has come to the fore on several occasions, going as far back as August when he said he was missing some “brilliance in the final third”. Even after the winger got injured after 20 minutes in Copenhagen a fortnight ago the City boss noted how “in the last few days his attitude in training was much much better.”

But he knows that he needs Grealish, and players like him who help City take those extra touches and passes, for them to really hit their stride in the run-in. In fact, he explained exactly why that is so important in his analysis of what City did right at Luton.

“Every time we play one touch we lose the ball,” he said. “Every time a player has three or four touches himself we can make extra passes, we can move the structure that they have, they lose the control and at the right moment you can attack, and we did it really well.”

Grealish is one of the players who gives City that. As Marti Perarnau, who has written three books on Guardiola’s management of Bayern Munich and Manchester City, said recently, the England man is “a midfielder who freezes time from the position of a winger”.

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Jack Grealish is integral to Manchester City’s stability (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

For City to look like City at their very best, their treble-winning, one-of-the-best-teams-of-all-time best, they need that quality, and for that reason they need Grealish, Stones and Bernardo to take more care of the ball. Especially without Mahrez and, particularly, Gundogan.

In recent weeks, City have won and even recorded back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since August, but they have looked far from their best. Even so, they have created chances for Haaland. The problem is that he has not been at his best, either.

He has been underperforming his xG for the first time since he was a kid at Molde, meaning that he is not putting away his chances at the same rate we have come to expect, but even so he has got City out of a couple of holes of late.

They were struggling to create against Everton, but he scored twice to give them the points. He missed a hatful of chances against Chelsea, where had he scored just one then City would probably have won. City were ragged against Brentford but Haaland scored the biggest chance of the game. And City’s winner at Bournemouth came after Haaland’s shot was saved, with Foden scoring the rebound.

The point being that even when City cannot strangle games like they usually do, they still manage to create chances for their main striker. More than that, if he scores them then City might not need to be at their best.

Especially when De Bruyne – “a smart guy, and I like to play with smart guys”, as Haaland put it on Tuesday night – is thrown into the mix.

“I think Erling needs a guy with the vision, quality and generosity,” Guardiola says. “Kevin is the least selfish player in front of goal. And Kevin needs the movements from Erling. We know how aggressive they are.”

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Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne’s relationship underpins City (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

It is surely not as easy as Haaland scoring enough goals to mask City’s shortcomings when it comes to controlling matches, because he was banging them in at the start of last season and Arsenal were still clear at the top of the table.

It was only when Guardiola moved Stones into midfield and all of those other pieces fell into place that City took things up several levels, and Grealish was a major part of that.

With Haaland in this kind of form, it gives them a huge chance while they wait for Grealish and that special quality of his to return.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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