Erling Haaland has the professional writer a problem. Most of the time, he doesn’t do very much. He jogs towards the ball. He jogs away from the ball. He prowls and waits.
He had a grand total of 26 touches, which is quite a lot by his standards, but still comfortably fewer than both goalkeepers. And so discussing Haaland’s influence becomes something of an unsatisfying binary, pivoting around a single volatile question: did he score or not? If he did, his contribution is likely to have been decisive. If not, then you’ve spent 90 minutes watching a tall blond man look at things.
The point is this: Haaland is one of those players who is utterly inconsequential, right up until the moment he isn’t. With six minutes remaining in this tight, slow-burning Champions League group game you could be forgiven for failing to remember a single contribution he made.
Instead it was John Stones and Jude Bellingham – a man playing out of position, and a man playing every position – who were the obvious protagonists.
Stones provided the moment, slamming in the equalizer from distance. On the early evidence of the season, this is not Pep Guardiola’s best team, nor is it his most beautiful team, but it may be his most interesting. There was a prevailing view on social media at half-time that this had been a fairly boring game. But City games can never be truly boring. The menace is all too present, the threat always implied if not always invoked, the squad too talented, too capable of outlandish and unspeakable feats.
However well you think you have them covered, they can always find another way to hurt you. And here it was Stones, with echoes of Vincent Kompany against Leicester and numerous Alex Ferguson teams past, who rose to the occasion.
Borussia Dortmund had certainly given it their best shot. They got tight, closed down the spaces, didn’t panic on the ball in the manner many teams do against City. Niklas Süle tried a stepover on the edge of his area. Emre Can read a dangerous curling cross by Kevin De Bruyne and didn’t simply head or hack it away, but chested it down to a teammate. Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez were simply running into the same dead ends, cutting inside into traffic, a comedy double act consisting of two straight men and no punchline. Bellingham, a lustrous and uplifting presence in the Dortmund midfield, put them ahead with a flicked header. On the touchline Guardiola looked both surprised and unsurprised, like a man who has just read the nutritional information on the back of a can of Vimto.
Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden made their entrance. And as Dortmund retreated into their lines, there was a vaguely epic quality to their rear guard. The visiting fans beat out a concussive tribal rhythm. Mats Hummels cut out a cross just as Haaland was about to pounce, and was greeted with back-slaps, high-fives and celebrations worthy of a goal. But even this was something of a tell: an admission of the slimness of their margins, the sheer enormity of their task. Simply keeping Haaland quiet for 75 minutes felt like an act of heroism. Bad news: there were still 15 remaining.
And what to say about that goal, really? Perhaps it was not so much a goal as a feat of physical architecture: an entire frame winched off the ground, the left leg raised like a battering ram, João Cancelo’s brilliant cross nudged in from a great height. There is, perhaps, an incongruity in the fact that Haaland can look so peripheral and then come up with a finish like that. But then you realize that those long minutes spent jogging and soft-pedalling are in the service of these moments: energy conserved, defenders sapped, a patience that is its own devastating form of self-belief.
This is not the sort of game that City used to win, or at least not the manner in which they used to win them. But they have been doing it more and more of late: Arsenal away last season, Aston Villa in the title decider and here again, a comeback victory borne of pure aura, the mental fortitude of a team that have conquered the mountain so many times that they no longer really know how to lose.
This, perhaps, is why it is Guardiola’s most interesting team. There is little of the flourish or splendor of its predecessors. Nothing is spoiled and nothing is wasted: a small squad who know their jobs and do just enough. A cynic might call them a flawed team, a team of moments, perhaps even a betrayal. An optimist might counter that this is football distilled to its purest and most perfect essence.