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How are Haaland and Núñez changing their new clubs?
Man City and Liverpool spent big on attackers. What do the early returns suggest?
Note: in the last article I referred to Darwin Núñez as just “Darwin”, but UK media sources are generally going with “Núñez” (or, god help us, “Nunez”). If any native Spanish speakers have strong feelings about the right way to go, please tell me.
The hype has been around these two for weeks, as well as the opposite of hype. All summer long, Twitter has been ready to meme both these players into failing for so much as a clumsy touch. Considering Twitter’s record on such matters, that bodes well for both players.
Last season’s top two both bet big on conventional strikers. It’ll be a long time before we can adequately say if those bets paid off. But what we can observe is how the teams and managers at least intend for all of this to work. So what did we learn in the first weekend of the Premier League about each player?
Erling Haaland is good at kicking the ball into the back of the net. Become a paid subscriber to Grace on Football now for that kind of high-level insight.
In both the league win over West Ham and the Community Shield, we continually saw Haaland wanting to receive the ball quickly. He gets himself into a good position and he wants the ball now. That’s not what Man City have been doing for the past several years, but the tension is there. If a midfielder wants to go direct instead of passing it carefully, they have that option of a physical striker upfront. I don’t think they’ll take that option very often, but it’s at least there.
“He’s a guy with incredible talent, scores nice numbers but we would like to add something more to his game to be a better player”, Pep Guardiola said of his new number nine after the win on Sunday. “Not just a guy who scores goals, which is so important, but that’s why we want to try to give everything to him to be a better player. He was born to score goals.”
It’s interesting because that’s not what Guardiola did with Robert Lewandowski, the most obvious comparison to Haaland in the manager’s career. The Polish striker was much more involved in the build-up play under Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, who really used him as a “do everything” focal point. At Bayern under Guardiola, a lot of the work outside the box was already done for him, so he could concentrate much more on the bit that matters most. His passes per 90 actually dropped slightly despite moving to a team that made a lot more of them. There was absolutely nothing false about that nine.
But Lewandowski has always been blessed with great technique. Haaland is more brute force. City are inevitably changing for him and he will have to change for them. When you watch his goals from last season, you see that he has four main categories: getting on the end of crosses, “scruffy” goals in a crowded box, penalties, and running in behind.
Haaland’s first goal on Sunday was a penalty, but we saw his explosive threat in behind as he won the foul. West Ham were actually in a good shape to defend this.
Now, poor Ben Johnson isn’t even a natural centre back, let alone one who could be expected to hold his own against Haaland. But he doesn’t turn his head often enough to track the striker, and Haaland easily uses his acceleration to get in behind and win the penalty.
This is the kind of movement he wasn’t supposed to be able to do in the Premier League. Other attackers who thrive in transition have struggled to adapt from Germany to England, with fewer sides giving up large spaces in behind. As I said, Johnson was not the stiffest centre back opponent out there, but West Ham are a very well-organised side, so it’s impressive that Haaland could still do this.
With City 1-0 up in the second half, the Hammers inevitably pushed higher up looking for an equaliser and opened themselves up on the counter. This is where Haaland could really just ruin them with his acceleration. West Ham don’t have anyone in their own third this time, which means Haaland can really just beat Johnson and Kurt Zouma in a foot race. I imagine he will score a lot of goals late in games against tired teams pushing for an equaliser against City.
I thought West Ham might give Haaland a problem where he couldn’t break in behind the defence at will. Clearly, that didn’t happen. I still think at some point a team will be compact enough to stop Haaland from running in behind, but it might not matter. That would open up space for City’s technical players to cast their spell in the opposition half.
I think Haaland and the other players are still getting to know each other. There will probably be moments in the next few weeks where they’re not quite on the same wavelength. But when it does all click, City have created many more options for how they’ll score a goal. They might not be quite as fluid in their positional play as when they favoured a false nine, but there shouldn’t now be any type of goal they can’t score.
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It didn’t go so well for Liverpool against Fulham on Saturday. There are plenty of reasons for that, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Darwin Núñez, whose first Premier League game went very well from a purely selfish perspective.
He came on after 51 minutes and thus did have an advantage of being fresh, but Fulham really struggled to deal with his movement. He took four shots and three of them were in the six-yard box. The first came from a low cross in which he did a kind of backheel flick type thing, to no avail. Minutes later, he received a similar low cross, which he backheeled in the same manner and scored. The third came from a long ball targeting him straight down the middle of the pitch, which he brought under control to drive towards goal. The fourth was a half-volley when running in behind from a tight angle.
Núñez reportedly had the highest top speed of any Premier League player last weekend. Liverpool look like they’re primarily using him both for his pace at running in behind and his ability to sniff out old-fashioned poachers’ goals from crosses. This should make him useful against both high-pressing sides and deep defences. Liverpool primarily switch between forcing the issue in wide areas and playing a transition game, so Núñez should suit both of those just fine.
For the first half of last season, Jürgen Klopp played Diogo Jota as the striker between Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah. Jota really played the role of an old-fashioned poacher. He was the least false nine in the Premier League. The idea with Núñez seems to be to keep that formula while adding his better acceleration and aerial threat.
Núñez really did play that part. He had 14 touches in total, four of which were shots and two were shot assists for others. Part of it was the flow of the game, but he was a live wire in the box who never really stepped anywhere else on the pitch. Klopp seems to be fine with letting his other players do the rest. The one big question is whether he can press as desired, and we didn’t get a good answer against Fulham. We’ll have to wait for other opponents to really find that out.
Klopp is definitely moving away from the Roberto Firmino-style false nine. Midfielders like Thiago Alcântara (when fit), Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones are more possession-first options than he had three years ago. Luis Díaz is at least intended to offer more in the build-up than Sadio Mané, probably in exchange for being less of a goal threat. Trent Alexander-Arnold has become one of the best playmakers in world football from right back. It all adds up to getting a bit more in possession from everyone else, allowing a more classic striker upfront.
I still think there will be certain games where Klopp needs the option of Firmino. But it’s not the future of this team. The Liverpool of tomorrow, like Man City, will rely on the other players in possession to feed a striker whose main job is to score goals. The biggest tactical question for both these players was whether their managers would just play them as outright natural strikers. The answer, in both cases, is yes.
We’ve entered a new era at the top of the Premier League. The classic number nine is well and truly back.