Erling Haaland was a giant rendered pygmy by Arsenal’s twin titans

Gabriel Magalhaes fights for a high ball with Erling Haaland
Gabriel appeared determined to make it his personal mission to disrupt Erling Haaland - Getty Images/Darren Staples
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It was the most passive-aggressive square-up you could wish to see. Erling Haaland, fresh from a 90-minute emasculation by Gabriel Magalhaes, stalked across to the Brazilian in such a fit of pique that Pep Guardiola had to separate the pair. Still they slung barbs at each other, these two smiling antagonists, before exchanging an embrace that looked awkwardly staged for the cameras. Quite the motif, all told, for a match where Manchester City’s Nordic assassin found himself strangely muzzled, and where Arsenal drew little satisfaction from firing blanks.

Nothing expressed City’s impotence so vividly as the fact that they put 690 passes together and yet contrived not a single shot to trouble David Raya. And at the heart of these Sisyphean labours was Haaland, a giant rendered a pygmy by the constant attentions of Gabriel and William Saliba. If the Norwegian looked furious at the final whistle, it was because he had been not so much nullified by the duo as neutered.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Erling Braut Haaland with Arsenal's Gabriel after the match
Haaland's post-match embrace with Gabriel appeared oddly staged for the cameras - Reuters/Carl Recine

On a cool spring afternoon thick with thwarted hopes, Gabriel and Saliba became the first centre-back partnership in the Premier League to restrict Haaland to zero shots on target twice in the same season. In fact, if you add in last summer’s Community Shield, they have managed it three times this campaign, across more than four hours of football.

Roy Keane, frankly, had endured enough. “The level of his general play is so poor,” he said. “In front of goal, he’s the best in the world, but in his general play he’s almost like a League Two player. That’s the way I look at it. He has to improve his all-round game.”

Even by the standards of Keane’s acid tongue, it was scalding. Haaland, let us not forget, torched records for fun in his debut season, reaching 50 top-flight goals in 17 fewer games than any player since the Premier League’s inception. There is an argument that only the unending adoration of Lionel Messi, far from the game’s epicentre in Miami, prevented him from winning the Ballon d’Or. Is it truly legitimate for a former Manchester United captain to be denigrating him, a few months later, as some fourth-tier trundler?

Keane’s prime objective, clearly, is to provoke. But his sheer bewilderment at Haaland’s ineffectual performance was shared all around the Etihad. With six minutes left, his moment arrived, as Kevin De Bruyne’s outswinging corner was headed across the face of goal by Josko Gvardiol and into his path. Except four yards out, he connected only with thin air. Until recently, such a howler would have been unthinkable from this centre-forward extraordinaire.

Now, though, at the very moment when City should be shifting up through the gears, Haaland is stuck stubbornly in neutral.

Recommended

Haaland 'like a League Two player': Roy Keane's withering analysis

Read more

Some perspective is required. Haaland has heard all the hackneyed criticisms before, sweeping aside such labels as “flat-track bully” and “tap-in merchant” with magisterial disdain. But there has been a disjuncture of late between the talisman who scored five in the FA Cup at Luton and the player who has receded from view on the grandest occasions. At Anfield three weeks earlier, he had eked out few sights of goal. This time, he was muscled out of the frame altogether.

Gabriel, in particular, seemed almost to be hounding Haaland. You could tell who held the upper hand when, in the dying minutes, he stood mere inches from the striker’s face and accused him of diving. Saliba, likewise, imposed himself so expertly that when De Bruyne’s late corner led to a clash of heads with Haaland, it was the Frenchman who came off the better. Each defender on his own was a menace. But it was their telepathy, which has made them the most feared centre-half double act in England, that was the real marvel.

The strength of the Gabriel-Saliba dynamic is the foundation on which Arsenal’s title challenge is constructed. Their talents are complementary: where Gabriel is the self-styled “animal”, timing his interventions with panther-like precision, Saliba calls himself a “machine”, such is his pride at his relentless tackling. Not that they are immobile lumps of stone at the back. They are far more adventurous in possession than Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure ever were during the period when Arsenal were last so defensively robust.

Manchester City's Erling Haaland, center right, duels for the ball with Arsenal's William Saliba during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad
Haaland could not escape the attention of Saliba - AP Photo/Dave Thompson

It was their joint display that left Mikel Arteta’s team the more content, reinforcing their confidence that they could withstand even the most hardened opponents. City, by contrast, have cause to worry about Haaland. The signs of his slump were evident in the Manchester derby, where, despite his contribution of the third goal, he also produced the miss to end all misses from point-blank range.

Having scored in nine of his first 15 league appearances this season, he has looked a pale imitation of his usual swaggering self since returning from a stress fracture in his foot, with goals in just three of nine games. Not exactly “League Two”, to use Keane’s hyperbole, but an undoubted alarm for Guardiola.

Haaland’s post-match contretemps with Gabriel suggested someone desperate to rediscover his snarl. As the decisive run-in begins, City need him to be reasserting his starring role. Instead, he is being squashed easily by rival defences. His trials mirror those of his team, where standards have dipped at an inopportune time.

But the credit must belong, ultimately, to Gabriel and Saliba, who worked so beautifully in tandem to defang City’s apex predator.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.