Manchester City’s tactical plan for Erling Haaland is relatively simple. As it stands, there is no big change of style or formation in mind, they will just ask the formidable striker to adapt his game slightly.
Using a false nine has helped City win the last two Premier League titles, so Pep Guardiola’s plan is to get Haaland to slot into that set-up and smooth off some of the rough edges on what he does outside the opposition penalty area. Drop off the front line, play short, fast balls to his team-mates and then sprint in behind and get in the box, where he can do damage.
A little like Harry Kane does (although with more focus on getting into the box), and it was the Tottenham striker Guardiola was so keen to sign last summer, precisely for his ability outside the area as well as in.
That’s not quite 21-year-old Haaland’s game just yet but that is where the adaptation is planned to begin, and if it doesn’t go well then the team may do more to adapt to him.
Ironically, it is a style of play already suited to the less-heralded No 9 arriving at the Etihad this summer: Julian Alvarez.
City signed the 22-year-old for about £14 million in January and then loaned him back to Argentine club River Plate until July 7, the day after their Copa Libertadores last-16 second leg at home to Velez Sarsfield.
River progressing to the quarter-finals would have triggered a clause allowing Alvarez to stay until their run in South America’s version of the Champions League ends — potentially not until after the final on October 29. However, City have paid their own clause — a further £1.26 million — to ensure he is in Manchester to participate in their pre-season.
It is an exciting prospect, not least because of the six goals he scored against Alianza Lima of Peru on Wednesday in River’s final game of the Libertadores’ group stage.
On the day Haaland was doing his media interviews and kit photoshoots at City’s training ground — and by all accounts living up to his reputation of not being much of a talker — Alvarez offered more than a glimpse of his potential.
Admittedly, River topped the group with 16 points out of 18 while visitors Alianza finished bottom with one point from their six. However, each of his six goals in the 8-1 hammering showed what the seven-cap Argentina international is all about.
For the first, Alvarez won the ball back high up the pitch and sprinted in behind the defence.
The hat-trick goal — still in the first half — came after he dropped off the front line to receive a pass from midfield, and then, when he realised he was in acres of space, unleashed a powerful shot from range.
For number four, Alvarez closed down the keeper, won the ball and passed it into an empty net.
The fifth was another aggressive run in behind the defence, topped off with a delicate, clipped finish…
…and the sixth was a devastating finish after arriving into the box, not dissimilar to that Sergio Aguero goal against Queens Park Rangers a decade ago.
So, not bad then.
Alvarez is an aggressive presser, takes corners and free kicks, and those runs in behind, either straight towards the box or down the channels, would allow City to stretch the game and create spaces for their midfielders. He really springs to life when there is a chance to get in behind, either running off the ball or trying to carry it past a defender.
City have been able to stretch teams without having a traditional No 9 (for example in the game against Wolves recently, using wingers and a midfield runner) but through the middle they have generally used Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and the now-sold Ferran Torres.
None of those three is a particularly clinical finisher and two are not even true strikers, so Alvarez’s arrival is certainly exciting for City.
It is even fair to say that, in terms of playing style alone, he is more suited to City’s game than Haaland is.
What City want Haaland to do, Alvarez has grown up doing. He has been playing as a false nine for Marcelo Gallardo’s high-tempo River side, dropping off the front and linking up with his team-mates via quick, first-time passes, then darting into the box.
When he signed for City four months ago, the headline stat was that he had scored 18 goals in 21 league games last season. In the 2022 campaign, which started in February, it’s nine in 13 plus six more in the six Libertadores group matches.