Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s era of Premier League dominance has been achieved without much contribution from specialist centre-forwards, with the honourable exception of Sergio Agüero in the autumn of his career.
iverpool and Manchester City’s attacks have been defined by flexible forwards who press from the front, dribble like wingers, create for team-mates and offer individual goal threat. Only two players passed 20 Premier League goals last season – Mo Salah and Son Heung-min, leading some to wonder if central strikers were being phased out at the top level.
The arrival of Erling Haaland and Darwin Núñez could reverse that trend though, and give Manchester City and Liverpool a completely different feel. There’s far more to both players’ games than brute force and battling centre-backs with back to goal, but they offer physical presence and stature previously absent from their squads.
With Harry Kane leading the line for Tottenham and the possibility of Romelu Lukaku staying at Chelsea, the big centre-forward could make a comeback next season and this is why.
Playing over a press in big matches
Exemplified by City and Liverpool, well structured and coordinated pressing has been one of the themes of recent seasons, especially in the biggest matches.
City and Liverpool back themselves to pass through the pressure when are brave enough to try and engage them high up the pitch. They frequently succeed, creating space to attack against isolated defenders.
On occasion though, against a troublesome opponent or in unfavourable conditions, the ability to go straight over the press can be an effective weapon. With Haaland and Núñez in the No 9 role, City and Liverpool could play into them directly and focus on winning the second ball, or send them running into space behind the defence.
Both teams have goalkeepers who can pass over long range, with every City outfielder in play when Ederson has the ball at his feet. His assist for Ilkay Gundogan against Tottenham in February 2021 is the type of ball Haaland will make even more dangerous and this strategy need not be in conflict with a desire to play out from the back as playing short can draw opponents on before surprising them with a more direct pass. Should the defending team drop to cover that option, there is more time to play short and the game of cat and mouse continues.
Penalty-box presence against deep defences
In some of City and Liverpool’s biggest games last season they were blighted by profligacy in front of goal and a failure to maximise dominant periods. This cost City dearly in the Champions League against Real Madrid, while Liverpool’s missed chances were not as fateful thanks to beating Chelsea on penalties in both domestic cup finals. Like City though, they spurned opportunities to bury Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
This can largely be put down to variance and misfortune, but Haaland and Núñez will offer greater penalty-box potency. When City and Liverpool face a barricaded defence manned by nine of 10 players, they will be expected to make the difference.
In league football last season, both strikers produced comparable output. Haaland scored 22 goals to Núñez’s 26, but edged expected goals per 90 minutes 0.87 to 0.83. Núñez took slightly more shots at 3.85 per 90 minutes to Haaland’s 3.76. The Norwegian produced more assists with seven to Núñez’s four.
One area Núñez has supremacy is dribbling. Despite being a central striker, he is fond of drifting out to the left flank and running at defenders with the ball at his feet. He and Luis Diaz could rotate positions, but it is clear why Liverpool feel Núñez can replace Sadio Mané. Despite their different frames, they operate in similar areas.
Five substitutes changing the game
Haaland will start every game for City, while Klopp may choose to bed Núñez in more slowly.
The move to five substitutes next season though, offers coaches a multitude of ways to strategise and pace their team through a match. While both strikers will expect starts, there is the possibility of holding them back until hour mark before unleashing them at a tiring defence. When chasing a goal against a parked bus, they are potentially more effective substitutes than throwing on another wide forward.
City and Liverpool already have incredible reserves of talent, but two additional substitutes further incentivises the ruthless acquisition of forwards. Whether that is good for the health of the sport is a separate debate, but the biggest clubs will make sure they start the season with a stacked bench.
Coaches will want at least three reliable, proven attacking options in reserve. Having players such as Diogo Jota or Riyad Mahrez on the bench would once have been viewed as an unsustainable indulgence, but is more justifiable in the era of five subs.
The new rules have increased demand in an already over-heated striker market. © (Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2022)