Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has hailed Erling Haaland, who signed for Manchester City this summer, as “the best striker in the world” ahead of City’s visit to Anfield on Sunday. Liverpool, too, brought in a new striker, Uruguayan Darwin Nunez, as the two top teams from last season’s Premier League looked to usher in a new era of rivalry.
The two strikers, however, have enjoyed contrasting fortunes since their arrival in England. Haaland is spearheading City’s challenge at home and in Europe with his goals, while Nunez has struggled to find his feet. The Uruguayan has revealed that he “doesn’t understand a word” Klopp says.
City signed the 22-year-old Haaland from Borussia Dortmund for £51million but the package swells to £85.5m with agent fees, signing bonus and add-ons. The Norwegian has already scored 15 goals in just nine Premier League appearances and is tipped to break the 38-game season record of 32 goals set by Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. Haaland has already matched the 2021-22 numbers of Kevin de Bruyne – City’s top scorer last season. He also has three hat-tricks and City sits just a point behind Arsenal in the table.
Haaland’s signing marked a distinct change in City’s preferred choice for the No. 9 role. In the previous seasons, Pep Guardiola has preferred fluid attackers, who played their part in the build-up play in possession. They were tasked with dropping deeper to create overloads in midfield, drift onto the wings and open spaces for attackers with their movement. Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling were among the players playing in the position with only Aguero being a recognised striker.
With Haaland leading the line, Guardiola has sought to play to the strengths of his big 6’3” striker. Haaland’s strengths lie in using his directness in running through on goal and the channels at a rapid pace, getting into goal-scoring positions inside the penalty box, and using his height and athleticism to create scoring opportunities for himself. At City, Haaland has fewer touches (24 per 90 minutes), passes attempted (19), fewer dribbles completed (0.46) and fewer progressive passes (1.49) compared with Jesus, who played 28 times for City last season and averaged 37 touches per game but scored just eight goals.
But it wasn’t an easy start for Haaland at City. In the 74 minutes he played in the 4-0 win over Bournemouth, City’s second game of the season, Haaland managed just eight touches and didn’t score. But he has kicked on since then, scoring a hat-trick in City’s 6-3 drubbing of city rival Manchester United. He scored the hat-trick with just 35 touches in 90 minutes.
Nunez, on the other hand, has had an underwhelming return in front of the goal. Liverpool beat Manchester United to sign him for a club-record fee of £85m. He has scored two goals in five appearances with a red card in between and has played the full 90 minutes just once. Liverpool has won just twice this League season, trailing leader Arsenal by 14 points with a game in hand.
In many ways, Nunez is very similar as a striker to Haaland, but the Reds have failed to fully utilise this qualities. While Liverpool’s malaise is multifold this season, accentuated by a defensive weakness, an aging midfield and injury woes, its fabled attacking football has also failed to bail it out as it used to.
Liverpool has had one of the greatest attacking trios in the Premier League in Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in the last five years. Not known for their aerial prowess, the three were technically proficient, had an excellent work rate out of possession and provided a cutting edge in attack. Mane left this summer, while Firmino is having a second coming of sorts this season after his injury troubles, but Salah hasn’t looked at his best so far.
From his small sample size of five appearances, Nunez has fewer touches (24 per 90), passes attempted (18), fewer dribbles completed (1.21) and fewer progressive passes (1.21) than Mane, who scored 16 goals while leading the line last season.
But it’s Salah’s lack of goals that has hurt Liverpool the most, The Egyptian forward has scored 20-plus goals in four of his five seasons at Liverpool but has managed just two in eight matches so far. From an expected goal output of 21 last season, the number has dropped to three in what is a small sample size this year. This is the first year where his shots per 90 minutes have dropped below 3 (2.97). While his touches in the penalty box remain the same, he hasn’t been at the receiving end of chances like he used to in previous seasons. The positioning of Mane (last season) and Nunez (this season) as the centre point of the attack has reduced Salah’s opportunities to drift into scoring positions inside the box from the wide.
Klopp, though, has faith in his forwards, including his new signing. “I think Darwin Núñez would have scored a couple more goals if he had played in the center of Man City this season. He would be a pretty good striker for them as well, finishing the situations off. We must improve our game to bring him more often in these situations,” said the German.
It will be mighty helpful for Klopp and his Liverpool if Nunez and his senior striking partners find their scoring boots in the high-profile clash against their biggest rival on Sunday.
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