If opponents didn’t already have a reason to fear Manchester City and Liverpool, they now do. Both teams have added to their fearsome goalscoring records by signing two forwards, Erling Haaland in sky-blue and Darwin Nunez in red, respectively, who seem to do little else but score. (More Football News)
On paper, both of them are archetypes out of football’s handbook - classical target men, old-school, goal-hanging forwards who are much out of vogue in the modern game. Although, Manchester City and Liverpool were part of the reason why the position fell out of favour.
Pundits and fans have been quick to note the Big Two’s sudden return to the archetype. The media has seized upon this moment, waxing lyrical about the return of the No.9, trumpeting yet another seismic shift carried out by the game’s innovators, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
Is it as cut and dry as the new signings make it out to be? History would suggest that City and Liverpool, as usual, have already seen the writing on the wall, thanks to their million-dollar astrophysicist-staffed sports analytics departments, and leave the rest of us to play catch-up. The question is, have we caught their drift correctly yet?
English football, and by extension, modern football, has largely moved away from fixed ideas. This is in no small part thanks to the systems that Manchester City and Liverpool have imposed in their pursuit of excellence. They have favoured efficiency and ruthlessness, systems over individual talent, wholes rather than sparks.
The demands of the modern game changed consequently, emphasis was placed on high-intensity sprinting, acceleration and versatility. Old-school positions fell out of favour, like the No.10, and the target man.
Guardiola was among the first to note the shifts in the game, and inspired a big part of it. Attacking midfielders, ball-playing centre-backs and flying fullbacks quickly became staples of both his and Klopp’s teams, despite the drastic difference in style between the two. Soon, both clubs had amassed a wealth of talent to the same tune.
Football’s production line is reactive. The game’s innovators and their followers implemented new ways across the board, and around the world, youth academies and clubs responded to the demand from the first teams.
Smaller teams and academies have always depended on the promise of a big pay day if they develop the right kind of player the super teams want. These transfers often ensure survival in the lower echelons of the game, football’s own trickle-down economics.
So if City and Liverpool want versatile forwards, that is what the assembly line churns out. If they want big men, again, scouts set off across the globe, measuring the height of youth players and their finishing prowess.
Erling Haaland is 6 ‘4’, and his rawer counterpart, Darwin Nunez, is 6 ‘1’. Haaland converted over seventy percent of his clear-cut chances last season. Nunez, less prolific, was still his team's answer every time they needed a goal. Football’s industry has wasted no time in pigeonholing the two as classical centre-forwards. And that is what they look like.
But looks can often be deceiving. A Korean Youtuber recounts his experience of seeing Haaland live at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, “Oh f***, he’s fast–he is too big to be that f**king fast”. Haaland isn’t your classic big man, he accelerates and hits top speed in no time. A tall forward running towards you at top speed is a sight to behold. In fact, to many who have followed him, his speed, not his finishing, is his strongest attribute.
Haaland knows that City have signed him to lurk around up front and score goals. But he is a forward who offers much more than that, he can drift out wide and knows how to drop deep and lay off the ball. Guardiola will be only too keen to use the full range of his new man’s impressive skillset.
Nunez is much the same at Liverpool. Gangly, tall and awkward, he fits the target man stereotype even more than Haaland does. But to anyone who has watched Nunez play, beyond highlight reels, knows that he rarely ever plays the classic part. Nunez moves smartly, streaks out to channels and offers his best attributes in link-up play.
For Jurgen Klopp, who prioritises the seamless movement of his forwards, that has clearly been the over-arching reason why Liverpool decided to forego their usual thriftiness and spend $100 million on Nunez.
A popular meme when Nunez signed was of Bart Simpson jumping through a window head first, hinting that Nunez had been signed to do little else except jump on the end of every ball played in by Liverpool’s passer extraordinaire, Trent Alexander-Arnold. The truth, as usual, is some way off. Nunez is rarely in those positions, and rightly so.
Neither of the two big money forwards conform to the idea of the ‘traditional’ center-forward, they are as nimble-footed and canny as their modern attacking counterparts. The media and the fans can be forgiven for mistaking them, but the really terrifying thing lies in the fact that both of them can serve multiple roles.
Manchester City and Liverpool are not regressing by returning to the mean of centre-forwards. They are reinventing the position, even as they bring it back. And soon, other teams will follow.
City and Liverpool are also very receptive to the fans’ need for entertainment. Fans have cried out for that spark, frustrated by modern wingers who will always elect the more conservative option to pass it back, rather than take on their man. Fans titter as midfielders perform quick turns and spray the ball over the field, and defenders get stuck in bone-crunching tackles.
Many have been dissatisfied watching the relentless tic of passes as modern day super teams carefully sift out chinks in their opponent’s armour. Opponents, equally have been reluctant to oblige by opening themselves, happy to sit back, and as a results, matches have fallen into a predictable pattern. Tic-tac, the opponents sit deep nervously, until eventually one of the multi-million dollar footballers find a way. Or they don’t.
In that spirit, no position commands as much football romanticism as the old-school, languid No.9, the vintage of Fernando Torres and Thierry Henry. Smart, powerful forwards who would often look lazy and disinterested, until a sudden burst of pace or turn would set them free, and they would unleash thunderous goal rattling shots. Fewer things are cheered as loudly on football’s terraces.
The big two aren’t returning to the old. They are repurposing it, a definite nod towards their fans. Chelsea tried to replicate the old with Romelu Lukaku, but that experiment quickly failed. Haaland and Nunez are here to entertain, not simply serve a role in finely tuned systems that already lead the goal-scoring charts.
On the balance of it, one or both of them might not work out. But the message that their teams are sending through them is clear. Soon, the rest of the game will craft itself similarly, and as fans, we may again see the halcyon days of attackers.