It is going to become a familiar sight this season: Kevin De Bruyne picking the ball up in the middle of the pitch, lifting his head and playing a defense-shredding pass through for Erling Haaland to race away from his markers and slot a clinical finish past a despairing goalkeeper.
Who said that Pep Guardiola doesn’t know what to do with a striker? For Manchester City, the early evidence is that their new No 9 is not going to disrupt Guardiola’s passing machine. The champions outclassed a West Ham side limp from start to finish and eased their way to a sleepy 2-0 victory thanks to two from Haaland, who followed up a first-half penalty with the kind of goal that suggests he is already on the same wavelength as his new teammates.
For City, the focus on the summer was finding ways to stay motivated. In a sense Guardiola has followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s formula of renewing from a position of strength, selling Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, but the principles remain intact. It is about evolution rather than revolution and it was immediately clear that this was more or less the same City, albeit with one crucial difference: an attack led not by a twinkle-toed false nine, but a big, muscular target man whose primary function is smashing the ball in the back of the net.
The eyes were instantly drawn to Haaland. It even seemed that there were questions for the 22-year-old to answer after some nervy finishing during City’s defeat to Liverpool in the Community Shield. For instance, would the physicality of English football be too much for a player accustomed to the less robust defenders of the Bundesliga? And just what did Guardiola have in store for the former Borussia Dortmund striker? A stint at left-back? A job as an auxiliary right-winger?
The answer, of course, was to put Haaland through the middle, with Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the wings, De Bruyne floating ominously and Ilkay Gündogan pushing forward from midfield to unsettle West Ham’s low block.
The effect was that City’s superiority was absolute during a disappointing game. They started slowly in the East End heat, almost going behind when Michail Antonio headed narrowly over, but they soon took control. For West Ham, who turned up with Kurt Zouma as their only fit centre-back, there was no way out of their own half at times.
The signs were worrying. West Ham wanted to hit City on the break, with Jarrod Bowen’s runs in from the right flank a concern for João Cancelo, but too often a lack of quality let them down. The game passed Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals by and while Declan Rice tried to drive his side on, West Ham’s captain mostly found himself trying to keep City’s creative threats quiet.
A City goal was coming. After 21 minutes Foden cut on to his left foot and delivered a teasing cross for Haaland, who crept away from Ben Johnson and grimaced after bungling his header.
It was a poor miss, though he would eventually find his touch. A crowd of 62,500 had roared David Moyes’s side on at the start, but frustration quickly took hold. At times, lingering beneath the surface, there was even the sense of the Moyes project growing a little stale.
With Antonio unable to hold the ball up, the pressure became incessant. Grealish was always willing to run at Vladimir Coufal on the left and there was a let-off for the hosts in the 27th minute, the flag going up for offside when Gündogan set up De Bruyne for an easy finish.
The game was bent to Guardiola’s tactical will. West Ham’s midfield screeners, Rice and Tomas Soucek, did not know where to look. There always seemed to be a spare yellow shirt and the ploy eventually brought a reward. Gündogan moved forward and played the pass, Haaland timed his run perfectly and Alphonse Areola, who had just replaced the injured Lukasz Fabianski in goal, brought the forward down.
It was a clear penalty and there was no doubt in Haaland’s mind when he stepped up to take it. The finish was unerring, a low left-footed strike arrowed into the bottom-right corner, with Areola sent in the opposite direction.
West Ham, who started with none of their summer signings, needed a fresh approach. They played with more energy in the second half and Moyes gambled, replacing Antonio with his new £35.5m striker, Gianluca Scamacca. There were brief flickers from West Ham. Saïd Benrahma, also on as a substitute, gave Ederson something to do with a tame shot. Rice shot over after a defensive mix-up.
Yet City always looked likely to score again. Gündogan wasted a good chance and the game was safe when De Bruyne sliced West Ham open with 25 minutes to go. The pass was a thing of wondrous beauty and, as Haaland peeled down the inside-right channel and opened up his body to work on the ball on to his left foot, there cannot have been a single person inside the ground who thought he was going to miss.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism