The words came out of Jurgen Klopp’s mouth, but Pep Guardiola could have spoken. “He’s a different striker than what we have or had but he’s a really good one,” said the Liverpool manager. He spoke about Darwin Nunez, while Guardiola may spend much of Manchester City’s season discussing Erling Haaland.
Their flagship commitments are the kind of players they neither had nor perhaps needed. City and Liverpool combined scored 297 goals last season. Very few came from genuine strikers: since Gabriel Jesus rebranded himself as right winger, none of City’s 150 seems to have done so. Perhaps only Divock Origi, responsible for six of Liverpool’s 147, qualified as a conventional centre-forward at Anfield. Diogo Jota excelled in midfield in his own way, Sadio Mane proved a notable success at No9 and Roberto Firmino remains Anfield’s definitive false nine. But probably none would have met the traditional descriptions of a centre-forward.
Enter strapping sixties that can be defined by their goal stats. “His numbers are remarkable,” said Guardiola von Haaland: 115 goals in 116 appearances for Borussia Dortmund and RB Salzburg, more than one of them in the Champions League. A key difference between flashy signings is that Nunez has only achieved this level of performance for one season, scoring 34 goals for Benfica last year.
The Uruguayan is the older man, but arguably less proven. He’s the more expensive one: a £64m fee could rise to a club-record £85m if add-ons are triggered, while Haaland had a £51m release clause at Borussia Dortmund – although Nunez’s wages are substantially lower.
Comparisons are inevitable, even if Klopp jokingly tried to distract from that last week. “One is left-footed, the other right-footed,” he said. “One is from Norway, the other from Uruguay; those are big differences.” However, if there’s a temptation to bill both the Community Shield and the campaign as a whole as a direct shootout between them, there’s reason to believe it’s not quite that simple.
And not just because the three seasons in which Mohamed Salah won or shared the Golden Boot were all years that City won the title; Guardiola’s model of sharing goals has shown that there is an alternative formula. With both clubs, the question is whether trying to make them better, adding another dimension to them, is instead costing them some of the chemistry that made them so compelling.
If Haaland becomes the box presence that City have largely lacked since Sergio Aguero’s body began to betray him, they will be down a tiny technician to swap positions in an intoxicating fashion. At Anfield, a formation was built around Firmino, whose willingness to search in midfield allowed Klopp to use narrow, prolific wingers. While Nunez’s Benfica goals showed a penchant for Mane-like outbursts in the left inner channel, the inverted forward line may no longer be there.
The challenge for any manager is to integrate and accommodate the expensive arrival of tinkering with the blueprint without removing too many of its existing benefits.
Guardiola and Klopp, in their different ways, have been the striker’s two greatest scourges in Premier League history. The false nine felt more of an ideological preference for the Catalan and a tactical solution for the German, but both made it work surprisingly well.
In Klopp’s case, it seemed more about one player – Firmino – while Guardiola had a rotating cast of false nines. An oddity is that both have worked productively with Robert Lewandowski, the standout real No. 9 of the past decade. Haaland may be the best of the next 10 years, although he could be burdened with various comparisons: with City’s record goalscorer Aguero and Barcelona target Guardiola soon discarded in Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Now he has suggested City will change their playing style to match an air presence in the box. “He has to adapt to our game and of course we will adapt,” the City manager said last week. “With his movements and his quality in the penalty area, we will try to get as many balls into the penalty area as possible.” Haaland marked his revelation with hopes that the city’s best crosser, Kevin de Bruyne, will get more assists this season becomes. The Belgian was top scorer last season and adjusted his game to compensate for the lack of a specialized finisher.
Also of note is that Guardiola sold the winger in Raheem Sterling who doubled as a poacher. These tasks can now fall back on a forward. Perhaps the dynamic is changing at Liverpool too: Luis Diaz excelled without many goals last season and while their top scorers in recent years have tended to be the two wingers, it could now be the striker and Salah.
Each may have started a recalibration. Nunez scored four times in a pre-season appearance against Leipzig, but after a glaring miss on his debut against Manchester United. Haaland marked his unofficial city arc with a winning goal against Bayern Munich. They were robberies. They’re early signs that the newcomers are promising targets, though it remains to be seen if there’s a compromise on what collective-based teams lose in other areas.
But maybe there is a cyclical element. In their idiosyncratic way, Guardiola and Klopp have reinvented football by removing the centre-forward. Now after decades of restoring a number of teams, they may have tied their fortunes to new players and a very old idea this season.
https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/darwin-nunez-liverpool-erling-haaland-man-city-b2130786.html Liverpool and Man City face a new challenge to make old solutions work after the transfers of Darwin Nunez and Erling Haaland