Transfer sagas so often run for years, but the biggest one of last summer is not likely to rear its head again. There was a fleeting sense about Harry Kane’s drawn-out and ultimately failed move to Manchester City, and perhaps that is why he was so desperate to make it a reality. If it didn’t happen last summer, at £120m as City wanted it to, it was doomed to forever be a near miss. Why? Because of Erling Haaland.
Ever since Sergio Aguero’s career at the Etihad Stadium began to wind down and Pep Guardiola shifted his attacking focus to a ‘false nine’, there has been lots of talk that he doesn’t need or want a true replacement for the Argentine, City’s all time top scorer. He too has fed into that narrative; even this week, when asked directly about Haaland, who is rumoured to be joining the club after they agreed to pay his £75m release clause, he batted away the question and insisted he was working with a great group of forwards. But his actions tell a different story; he was desperate for Kane last summer because, with his age, experience and desire to win trophies, it made sense.
But Kane had signed a long-term deal at Tottenham and given the club all the power to yield when he eventually asked to leave. If City couldn’t budge Daniel Levy, one of the toughest and most notorious negotiators around, they wouldn’t go overboard. For all the talk of Guardiola’s spending across his career, and consistency of working with the best players, examples of his teams spending outlandish sums on a single player are rare. He operates within a philosophy and he rarely stretches it; perhaps the Kane bid was hampered by his desire to break character and splash £100m on Jack Grealish. It felt strange then, and time has not been particularly kind.
City’s striker hunt had another factor; an incredibly rare factor. Haaland was already operating on Kane’s level at the age of 20 in Dortmund, and although some clubs did look, he proved impossible to get last summer. Partly, though, everyone knew he’d become available this year at a fraction of his cost then and of his true market value. He’d be worth the wait; it is worth considering why Kane took the measures he did to get to City, but perhaps even he was aware. He wants trophies and arguably the only place where that is an annual guarantee is under Guardiola, but because of Haaland, he’s missed his stop.
The Norwegian striker was incredibly highly-rated when he got to Dortmund in January 2020; forgive the cliché, but he had burst onto the scene at Red Bull Salzburg, becoming the youngest player to score a Champions League hat-trick only a few months earlier. Manchester United, managed at the time by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who knew him from Molde, attempted to sign him, but the fact he was going to the Bundesliga side foreshadowed his career path. They are the club who take highly-rated young players and turn them into superstars for profit; even so, £17m felt like a steal at the time.
It says a lot about how quickly he has risen, though, that his buyout clause appears to pale in significance to his true value. That says Dortmund, his new agent Mino Raiola and Haaland himself didn’t foresee him being at this level so quickly, but it will make his transition to the next level much more straightforward this summer.
He is most certainly worth becoming a marquee Guardiola signing. Most of the players he has worked with who have been called world class, he has inherited; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Philip Lahm and Kevin de Bruyne. Haaland would be a breakaway from the norm in that sense, and the transfer fee would make it something of a mirage. But reports suggest he’ll be paid around half a million pounds per week; that is very much more in line with the modern day elite transfer.
In many ways, Haaland to Manchester City has been football’s worst kept secret. Guardiola’s use of the false nine is admirable, but born more out of necessity than deliberate planning. He was waiting for an elite striker, and with the situation Haaland found himself in at Dortmund, he knew it wouldn’t be long and it would be worth it.
Perhaps it needs to be stressed; reports are not confirmed. But Haaland, son of a former City player, always felt within their grasp. It is frightening to consider what he could become under Guardiola’s tutelage.