Why Roy Keane's wild criticism of Man City star might not be so insane after all

The former Manchester United midfielder made some eye-catching comments about Erling Haaland over the weekend.
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It’s not like Roy Keane to kneecap a Haaland. Oh, wait a minute... On Sunday afternoon, Erling Almighty put in a Godzilla-esque performance against Arsenal, but like, the bits where the giant mutant lizard skulks about on the ocean floor unseen for decades at a time, not the bits where he lays waste to some Japanese metropolis or other.

Subjected to the velcro attentions of William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes, the Manchester City striker drifted about in a state of relative anonymity. Oftentimes he will do this, stalking through games with a predator’s intent before pouncing once or thrice to rip out a defender’s jugular, but under the collective custodial eye of the Gunners he was more ‘docile house cat’ than ‘king of the jungle’.

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It was a performance that has stoked vapid online discourse among faceless stan accounts about a perceived tendency to fumble bigger moments, and that drew the kind of scathing criticism from Keane which felt almost tailor-made to fuel opinion columns like this one.

“In front of goal he's the best in the world, but his general play for such a player - it is so poor,” the bubbly Irishman said. “Not just today. He has to improve that. He's almost like a League Two player - that's the way I look at him. His general play has to improve. It will do over the next few years. [He's a] brilliant striker but he has to improve his overall game." That dull thud you just heard was the sound of jaws hitting floors all across the Greater Manchester region.

Naturally, Pep Guardiola has come to the defence of his personal berserker, telling a press conference: "He [Haaland] is the best striker in the world and he helped us win what we won last season. The reason why we didn't create many chances [vs Arsenal] was not Erling, it's that we need more presence in the final third with more people.

"We played an exceptional game, I reviewed the game against Arsenal, but we missed more people in the final third maybe for the quality and skills that we have. Erling is exceptional. I'm surprised this came from a former player. From journalists, I can understand, never been on the pitch but former players is always a surprise.”

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Now, it should go without saying that Erling Haaland is not a League Two footballer. Dropping him into the fourth tier would be like entering a Demogorgon into Crufts. It also feels a touch obtuse to leave his goal-scoring prowess to one side in any conversation about his contributions to City’s cause, almost like that ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?’ bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian; ‘But aside from the 81 goals and 15 assists in 88 appearances and the historic treble, including a first ever Champions League title, that he helped fire us to last season, what has Erling Haaland ever done for us?’. Enforcing any kind of caveat that fails to account for his freakish return is like complaining that an AK-47 isn’t a very good tin opener; his job is to dismember, and dismember he does.

But in truth, Keane is not entirely out of line. Part of the problem is that the former Manchester United midfielder - sunshine incarnate that he is - has spent so long and garnered such a reputation for being the archetypal grouchy cynic that when he does drift into occasional hyperbole, people are inclined to take his comments earnestly. I do not know for certain, of course, but I would wager a considerable number of jelly beans that Keane does not actually believe Haaland’s general game play is deserving a demotion to the lower leagues. At least, I certainly hope he does not.

That being said, at the core of his exaggerated condemnation lies the grain of a fairly valid point. Haaland is magnificent, but there are areas in which he could improve. The (Ci)T-800 has a pass completion rate of just 74.7% this season, only the 201st highest average in the Premier League, while his running tally of 21.5 touches per 90 minutes is the 537th highest in the top flight. For context, Ederson averages 41.6 touches per 90 minutes.

Even in areas where Haaland is commonly understood to excel, such as his finishing, there are reasons to be unexpectedly critical. His shot accuracy, for instance, is only the 39th highest in the division, and directly comparable to the likes of Luton Town forward Elijah Adebayo and Fulham midfielder Tom Cairney. Elsewhere, the discrepancy between his xG and the actual number of goals he has scored this term shows him to be, statistically speaking, the fifth most wasteful player across the whole of the Premier League.

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None of this is to say that Haaland is a bad player - bad players don’t lead the golden boot race after 29 matches having missed the busy festive period with a stress fracture in their foot - and in many respects, the only thing that matters in this entire debate is how satisfied his manager is with his contribution. Evidently, Pep could hardly be more content.

But equally, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Haaland has fully reached his potential. Already, he is a truly fearsome presence, and yet he still has notable lulls in his game. To that end, as absurdly wild as Keane’s outspoken assessment of the City striker may be, it does contain the faintest speck of veracity. If Haaland ever does wrangle those slight foibles into place, god help us all.