Football Features

“A different type of striker we face now” – Man City and Liverpool offer a glimpse into the future of football tactics

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 7:49, 10 June 2022 | Updated: 20:05, 11 June 2022

Manchester City have signed Erling Haaland, and in classic Liverpool fashion the Reds are looking to fight fire with fire.

Jurgen Klopp’s men are not as well-oiled a machine as Pep Guardiola’s monumental Manchester outfit, there can be no doubt about that. In fact it feels like Klopp is squeezing every bit of potential from his Liverpool squad just to run City as close as he has done.

Both have built their squad using a similar methodology of finding quality players that fit their system and developing them at the club. Obviously City can take bigger financial risks in this regard (such as paying £100m for Jack Grealish) but neither is in the business of buying ready made superstars, even if inflation has led to them paying superstar prices.

Signing Haaland this summer was a departure from City’s usual recruitment, in that he arrives as a world-conquering world-class superstar. Sure, Guardiola will develop and improve him (as he does with all players) but between Haaland’s purchase and their pursuit of Harry Kane last year it’s clear that defeat in the 2021 Champions League final convinced City they needed an elite No. 9 in their squad.

This is a similar realisation to the one that Guardiola had about his Bayern Munich side back in 2014, which is why they signed Robert Lewandowski (from Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund of all places) and put him at the head of that team after spending a season trying and failing to make Mario Götze (also from Klopp’s Dortmund) work as a False No. 9.

Now, after two years of running the False No. 9 at City to domestic success and European woe, Guardiola has signed Haaland in attempt to replicate what he did at Bayern. So how does Klopp respond?

For his part, Klopp has also favoured a False No. 9 set-up at Liverpool. Unlike at Dortmund where he used Lewandowski and then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to lead the line, with Liverpool he has primarily gone with Roberto Firmino as a withdrawn forward until 2021 when the arrival of Diogo Jota changed the make-up of Liverpool’s attack, with the Portuguese playing as more of a goal poacher up front.

The 2022 January transfer window saw Luis Díaz join and things changed again. The Colombian is such a dynamic force as a winger that the Reds moved Sadio Mané up front. Mané is a capable forward but, again, more of a withdrawn False No. 9 type. And what’s more: he allegedly wants to leave, opening up a spot for Liverpool to sign a No. 9.

With Kylian Mbappé is staying in Paris, signing the world’s other young striking phenomenon is out of the question. And while Lewandowski is trying to leave Bayern, he seems dead set on going to Barcelona. Absent those obvious selections, and in classic Klopp fashion, Liverpool are looking for someone loaded with talent and potential that they can enhance.

Enter Benfica’s Uruguayan striker Darwin Núñez.

Núñez has had a breakout season with Benfica, scoring 26 times in the Primeira Liga (his tally of 1.15 goals per 90 minutes is the best scoring rate in Europe’s top seven leagues among players with at least 1,000 minutes) as well as six times in the Champions League including home and away against Liverpool themselves.

On the surface, there are obvious similarities between Haaland and Núñez, as Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk has pointed out before: “It’s a different type of striker that we face now, doing very well, in Haaland,” he said, adding: “Also Darwin, he’s a bit similar. Very direct, quick, tall, strong.

“It’s quite difficult to play against those guys.” For Van Dijk to group Núñez in with Haaland is a huge boon for the Uruguayan. No one needs convincing of Haaland’s bonafides, but with just one year of elite performances under his belt, some may doubt Núñez.

They shouldn’t, of course. Liverpool’s scouting has been generally flawless, even perceived flop Takumi Minamino has played well when he has been given minutes, he just hasn’t been given that many minutes.

The Reds just don’t miss, and only six months ago signed Díaz from the Portuguese league to great success. Moreover, Núñez has also received a glowing recommendation from the last great No. 9 to play for Liverpool: Luis Suarez.

“I recommended Darwin to Barcelona when he was at Almeria,” said former Liverpool striker Suárez while speaking to journalist Gerard Romero. “I told them, ‘pay attention to this one, he’s very good, he shows interesting things’.”

“They told me he was at Almeria and that he was too young,” Suárez continued, providing yet more evidence that Josep Bartomeu’s Barcelona regime was as narrow-minded and incompetent (they allegedly passed on signing Alphonso Davies because he was Canadian) as Liverpool’s current backroom set-up is progressive and brilliant.

“But instead of paying now €80 million, €90m or €100m, they would’ve paid €15m or €20m and had him there as a substitute.”

But does he actually stack up? Well, Haaland’s injury woes have held him to just 29 goals in 30 games this season, a meagre follow-up to the 41 in 41 he managed last season. That’s 70 goals in 71 games over the last two seasons.

Núñez has played 84 times over the last two seasons, scoring 47 goals. Looking at pure league action over the last two years, Núñez has 31 goals in 56 Primeira Liga matches while Haaland has bagged 49 times in 52 Bundesliga bouts.

Obviously Haaland’s raw numbers are more impressive. Even per 90, Haaland has 1.02 goals per 90 across the last two Bundesliga seasons while Núñez has 0.75. Haaland tops most metrics by some way, but Núñez is a better dribbler with 3.06 take-ons per 90 while Haaland has just 1.48 and also just edges chances created 1.52 to 1.04. More importantly for Klopp, however, Núñez is a better pressing force. The Uruguayan has made 0.55 tackles per 90 over the last two seasons while Haaland has just 0.19.

What’s more, Núñez has not played with anything like the chance creation machine that is Trent Alexander-Arnold. While City democratise their creativity and make it more about the unit as a whole (with De Bruyne as the main spark), Liverpool have Salah with 7.36 xA for the Premier League this season and Trent with a whopping 13.01 xA. Can you imagine him whipping crosses and long passes for a rampaging force as dominant as Núñez? It’s as terrifying a prospect as the City machine having Haaland on hand to hammer in all those cutbacks.

City buying Haaland put the Premier League on notice. The best team in the league (and arguably the world) was getting even better in the most direct and terrifying way possible. It’s like bringing a gun to a fist fight.

If Liverpool do sign Núñez they will be bringing their own gun to the gunfight atop the Premier League. A brave and bold indicator that they will not be left behind by Guardiola’s war machine.

Yes, he’d be expensive. The rumoured price is anywhere from €80-100m. But Virgil van Dijk cost £75m, Alisson around the same. No one cares now because they have more than justified their fees with year upon year of excellence. That’s how it is with expensive signings: people forget the price when you’re great, and there’s no doubt that Núñez would be great for Liverpool. As great as Haaland would be for Manchester City? Maybe, maybe not, but definitely closer than anyone else would get.