Haaland and the Importance of Team Connection in Football: Insights from Thierry Henry and Beyond


published 16:11, 03 March 2023

It is not easy for Erling Haaland to fit in with his friends at Manchester City. Although he has been involved in more than 30 goals in the Premier League, he scored 27 – which is the record for Manchester City’s season in the Premier League – and he seems to be on the safe path to winning the title of Europe’s top scorer, Manchester City is struggling to win games this year that last year, without a dominant striker, managed to win.

It’s not that City is a bad team with Halland, but the style that has characterized it throughout its years with Pep Guardiola in the team, did have to change because of and for Haaland.

Last year every City player touched the ball at least 50 times over 90 minutes of play. This is the result of a method that is built on moving the ball as a means of controlling the game. 

Ehrling Haaland sometimes finishes games with fewer than 20 touches of the ball. This season he touches the ball 26.9 times a game. Only one other player touches the ball less than 50 times in a City match – Julian Álvarez, who touches the ball almost twice as much as Haaland.

Once a player is no longer part of the collective ball movement, the nature of the entire game changes. It’s not “good” or “bad” it’s just something that the other players have to adapt to, and any change like that has its implementing period, which sometimes slows down the team, which no longer looks as sharp as last year and doesn’t dominate the games like last year.

On Sky News Monday Night Football show, Thierry Henry – the former Arsenal player and considered one of the best strikers ever – explained the difficulties a striker has to fit into a new team. Henry presented some insights that only a player like him can give on the screen:

“There is one piece of advice that Arsène Wenger gave me and will always stay with me,” said Henry in a discussion of Haland’s difficulties at City. “He asked me: ‘What can you do when the team doesn’t pass you balls?… As a striker, I always complained about everything. He doesn’t give me the ball, etc. And he said to me, ‘Do you think Dennis Bergkamp can give you the ball like Freddy Leonberg?’. And I started thinking: with Dennis, I can move the way I want to move, and he’ll find me… But Robert Pires loves the double pass – so I have to get close to him to get the ball and do something with it. 

With Freddie Leonberg, I had to be on his running track for him to see me. I started thinking about how I could empower my teammate’s skills instead of exposing his weaknesses… So let’s say with Kevin De Bruyne, Haaland can be sure that he will get a spinning pass from him. But maybe Bernardo Silva likes to do a double pass. I think Haaland does the same run no matter who’s with the ball, and I’m not sure that’s what helps the team… 

And in big games, we see that he’s just not involved, doesn’t touch the ball, and doesn’t score. Last year they won the championship without his goals, now they have his goals, and they are in second place – why? What does that mean?”

In order for a striker to reach Henry’s level of insight and understanding, he needs to be part of the same team for quite a while – and thus learn what the players around him want and need. What can empower them and how not to expose their weaknesses.

For years, the “holy grail” of analysts and statisticians who dealt with football was to find the indicator that checks the efficiency of the connections between players. 

There are some data and metrics that help with this, but in the end, the connection is complicated to measure. It has to do with the level of empathy among the players in the team, it has to do with their communication frequencies, it has to do with their personal aspirations and it also has to do with the amount of time they spend together – and the crises they encounter as a team.

When a coach says he “needs time” to build the team then he’s probably right. Every leader needs time to turn individuals into something greater than the sum of their parts. To build and strengthen connections between the players themselves and between the players and the professional team.

Players need to understand each other and to empower each other. And so it’s just ridiculous when Chelsea fans demand the dismissal of Graham Potter, the coach who came to Chelsea just before the World Cup. True, expectations are high and he will have to meet them but Chelsea is a team that last season bought players for more than 600 million euros – including more than 300 million euros invested in procurement in January alone.

Chelsea have a lot of talented players who can leave a huge mark on the Premier League but at the moment they are still learning how to play with each other.

Will Graham Potter get that time after a streak of 10 games with a single win? Given the recent history of modern football, probably not. Chelsea-level football teams have it all nowadays – an excellent mantle for players, excellent facilities, great conditions. The only thing that is not the most important thing: time.

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