Football News

Glen Johnson backs “unique” Darwin Nunez to break into Europe’s elite ahead of Man City v Liverpool

By Matt Banks

Published: 10:50, 22 November 2023

Can Virgil van Dijk stop Erling Haaland in Manchester City v Liverpool this Saturday? City’s defence may have a “unique” centre-forward to worry about themselves, according to Glen Johnson.

This week Squawka spoke to the former England, Chelsea and Liverpool right-back, who also picked out the Three Lions’ best right-back option, Cole Palmer’s best position and more.

MB: What did you make of England’s performances in the international break?

GJ: England definitely weren’t great in either game, but we need to stay positive. They knew the job was done and made loads of changes. You’d like to think they could still blow those teams away, but if you look across the whole qualification stage they won the group and put in some really good performances along the way.

MB: Do you agree with Gareth Southgate on continuing to pick Jordan Henderson?

GJ: I think Southgate wants some mature, more experienced players in the dressing room. The squad is very young and although Henderson won’t play that much in the tournament he’ll still be really valuable. For him to be around the younger players and to help them, that’s super important and he’ll have a role to play in doing that during the Euros.

MB: England are blessed with players in your old position of right-back in Walker, Trippier, James, Trent and even Rico Lewis. Who would you say is the best option for Southgate in that position for the Euros?

GJ: Every right-back in the England set-up has different skills so it’s a tough one to know who to pick. Trent is amazing from set pieces and in his attacking play and with his passing, Walker’s speed is so important, Trippier’s delivery. I think it’s important to say that the way players play for their clubs, they can’t do that at international level. Walker for example plays for the best team in the world where you can get away with murder. You can’t do that for England. For me, if I had to pick a right-back for England, it’d be Reece James. He’s the least error-prone option we have and he’s still a huge threat going forward.

MB: What are your thoughts ahead of the City Liverpool game this weekend?

GJ: As a fan watching the game I’m hoping for an explosive matchup of two of the best teams in the league going at it, but it probably won’t be like that and could be quite a cagey game. These are two giants of the Premier League, and of course for Liverpool it’s going to be extremely hard to go to the Etihad and win, but both sides will do everything they can to not lose. If you want to win the league, it’s about not dropping points in these kinds of games and making sure you win the others.

MB: Do Liverpool finally have the type of midfield that can compete with City’s technically?

GJ: I think Liverpool can match City in midfield over 90 minutes for sure. They may not be as established as City’s players yet, but in the one-off game, they can take on anyone. Are they ready to take that level of performance and do it consistently over the course of a full season? We’re not yet sure. Liverpool are more than capable of being able to go toe-to-toe with City.

MB: Haaland has only played against Liverpool once in the Premier League and Liverpool kept a clean sheet at Anfield. They’re one of the few teams he hasn’t scored against in the Premier League. Is Virgil van Dijk the perfect centre-back to combat Haaland’s physical prowess?

GJ: If anyone can stop Haaland, Van Dijk can. The issue is, with City it’s not just about him and there’s goal threats everywhere. Liverpool have to be careful not just build the whole gameplan around Haaland, but in terms of the one-on-one battle between him and Van Dijk, it will be interesting to see how they take the game on. I’m interested to see if Haaland will look to go in behind or drop off and pull Van Dijk away from the defensive line.

MB: Gvardiol will likely play on that left side. He looked shaky against Chelsea — will he have a tough time against Salah?

GJ: If Salah is on form he makes it tough for anybody in the world, so that won’t be the benchmark for Josko Gvardiol. He’s obviously a good defender and he’s been trusted straight away to play in these big games by Guardiola. Of course he’ll have a tough game defending Salah but he’s a talented player.

MB: If Liverpool were to win on Saturday would you make them title favourites?

GJ: There’s obviously still a long way to go, and it would take a brave man to say for certain. Every team at the top looks beatable, but I have a feeling that whoever wins this game could end up taking that momentum and going on a long winning streak and getting some distance between them and everyone else at the top of the table.

MB: Darwin Nunez has impressed this year. How close is he to being a complete centre forward and one of Europe’s elite?

GJ: I think Nunez could absolutely become one of Europe’s elite. He impressed me a lot last year even when he wasn’t scoring, because he was still a threat. You always worry about the strikers that not only aren’t scoring but aren’t affecting the game elsewhere, which you could never say was true of Nunez. Of course he does miss chances, but he creates for his teammates, he’s a threat to defenders. He’s a fantastic player and looks the real deal.

MB: Is there still parts of his game that need improvement?

GJ: People talk about his temperament, but I think that’s what makes him who he is and you don’t want to lose that, you just have to harness it. If you want him to be perfectly behaved all the time, you’d lose a part of him that makes him unique. As long as he can control it and stay calm and calculated, he’s fantastic.

MB: Despite signing four midfielders in the summer, Liverpool continue to be linked to more. Do you agree they still need to strengthen here in January, particularly in the defensive midfield role?

GJ: I always think the defensive midfield role is a key role for a title-winning team. They are the anchor for the whole team and a good one can raise the whole team’s performance. I think they are probably going to need a player who is a natural anchor man in that position, because Mac Allister and Szoboszlai want to be further forward.

MB: Has Thiago’s time at Liverpool come to an end do you think?

GJ: I love Thiago as a player, he’s technically world class, but he’s struggled with injuries and I think the Premier League caught him by surprise a bit. He did have some fantastic games, but maybe the pace of the game was just a little bit too quick. I’m sure he’ll go on to have a good career elsewhere but with Liverpool signing all these players in midfield that can stay fit then it’s not looking good for his Liverpool career.

MB: Should Liverpool be looking to use Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield in the same way England do?

GJ: I don’t think Liverpool should be looking to play Trent in midfield full-time. He’s had some good games for England in midfield, but I think he can only really do it against the weaker teams. If he’s playing in the midfield role against Man City, they’re not going to be worried about him, they’d probably enjoy it. It’s always good to experiment and try things but it’s not something Liverpool should be looking to do full-time.

MB: According to reports, Madrid have cooled their interest in Kylian Mbappe and rumours are that Liverpool could be interested. Could you see Liverpool really spending that kind of money to get him in?

GJ: I can’t see Liverpool spending the kind of money it would take to bring Mbappe in. They’ve always brought in players strategically, using data, statistics and looking to the future and also often looking for a good deal and to be honest, they usually get it right. I just don’t think they’re the kind of club to go and break the bank to buy Mbappe. I hope they do! I just think it goes against what they are all about.

MB: Would he suit Klopp’s high-pressing style of play?

GJ: Being at PSG, he’s never really had to do that high press. Whether he’s capable of it and whether he actually wants to do it or not I don’t know, but they would still absolutely sign him if they could. If you want to play for Klopp, you absolutely have to be able to help the team and work hard, so I’m sure he would buy into that.

MB: Liverpool have been linked with multiple central defenders, with Goncalo Inacio of Sporting the name being linked the most. Do you think this is a position Liverpool need to strengthen in January?

GJ: I think whoever has partnered Van Dijk in recent years has had ups and downs and they don’t have a settled partner for him, which is a bit of a shame. I think they need to find a player who will consistently play alongside Van Dijk and help anchor the team every week with him. World-class centre halves are extremely hard to find though.

MB: Klopp has said before how much he hates the Saturday 12:30 kick off after an international break. Did you ever feel this way when you were playing?

GJ: It’s never something I really worried about as a player. As a player, you always feel fit and it’s down to the manager and the backroom staff to worry about how many minutes you’ve played or how many miles you’ve travelled. I understand why Klopp has talked about this. He’s just doing right by his players.

MB: How big is Saturday’s game for Chelsea against Newcastle to prove their top-four credentials?

GJ: I don’t see this game as a ‘top four’ clash at all. Chelsea have to win these types of games if they want to compete for fifth or sixth at the moment, let alone top four. It’s not going to be an easy game at all; Newcastle at home are a really tough team to beat.

MB: What do you make of Cole Palmer’s recent performances for Chelsea?

GJ: Cole Palmer has been doing great. He’s obviously got a great mentality stepping up for penalties and performing against his old team. He looks calm on the ball, looks like he’s enjoying his football and it’s good to see, I think he’s the real deal.

MB: Do you see him better out wide or as a 10?

GJ: I prefer to see him in the middle, behind the striker. At the moment, I don’t think he’s quick or strong enough to be isolated one on one with defenders and is best receiving it on the half turn and being clever with his passes into strikers. He’s the sort of player strikers love to play with, but I don’t think that he’s the kind of player a full-back hates to play against one on one on. He’s intelligent and can play through the lines in the middle, and that’s where he should be used by Chelsea.

MB: How important is getting Reece James back and also keeping him fit going forward?

GJ: It’s so great to see Reece James back for Chelsea. He’s the captain for a reason so he’s obviously a leader within that young squad. Hopefully he stays fit now and helps Chelsea climb up the table.

MB: Nicolas Jackson has found his shooting boots in recent weeks, what do you make of his performances recently?

GJ: The hat-trick against Tottenham would have helped Jackson massively, even if it was against nine men, that would have given him huge confidence. He’s always worked hard and even when he wasn’t scoring he was threatening, so now it’s about kicking on and showing us that he can be a top striker.

MB: Could you see him struggling for game time once Christopher Nkunku returns?

GJ: Nkunku is going to have to earn the shirt and will have to be patient. He’s been out for a long time and he will have to show the manager why he should start. We know he’s a good player and he may well take the shirt back in time, but you can’t just drop a goalscoring striker in form because a player’s come back from injury.

MB: Would you still look to bring in another striker in January for Chelsea? Links with Osimhen and Toney keep popping up.

GJ: I really like Ivan Toney and think he’d be great for Chelsea. Of course in Jackson and Nkunku they have two very good options, so they don’t need to run out and pay massively over the odds, but if the right deal comes along, it’s something they should absolutely explore.

MB: Marc Cucurella was criticised massively for his performances last year and there were rumours of him moving on in the summer, but he seems to have gained Poch’s trust and is being used often. What do you make of his performances this season?

GJ: Cucurella looks like a player who is really enjoying the faith that Poch is putting in him. He’s always had ability there’s no doubt about that. He just sometimes looked a bit lost or out of position, but I don’t think that was always on him entirely, especially considering Chelsea were playing so badly as a team. What Pochettino does well is putting an arm round a player and letting them know he believes in them and I’m sure he’s done that here.

MB: Romelu Lukaku is banging goals in for Roma this year and got four goals in 20 minutes for belgium 2 days ago. Why did it never work out for him at Chelsea when he does so well in Italy?

GJ: Lukaku is an absolute goal machine, but I just don’t think he was right for the Premier League. He’s obviously so big and strong and a beast in front of goal, but sometimes the game would fly past him a bit. His time at Chelsea was often him trying to get too involved in the play, dropping deep and trying to link up play, instead of just being a dangerous front man who was there to score goals. In Italy he’s going to get a bit more time on the ball and when you give him that he’s absolutely lethal.