During the 2021/22 campaign, both Liverpool and Manchester City established themselves as trendsetters by succeeding without fielding designated strikers. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola both used strikerless systems at their respective clubs, with Roberto Firmino serving as Merseyside’s main man.
The Brazilian international was the final number nine for the Reds, regularly dropping into deep areas as a means of helping his midfield teammates. Firmino’s withdrawn movements allowed Liverpool to gain a foothold in the middle of the park, with Guardiola using a number of players to create a similar balance at the Etihad Stadium.
At the time, Manchester City had no true false nine, leading to a number of players alternating in the role, from Phil Foden and Jack Grealish to Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. Guardiola’s team won the Premier League this season with 93 points, while Liverpool finished second with 92 points.
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The next best team, England, scored only 74 points. Klopp and Guardiola proved to be on a different level than their peers, and in the summer that followed, they both made comparable moves in the transfer market, investing in similar strikers that would change the landscape for both sides.
Manchester City bought Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund. The Scandinavian is just 23 years old, but he already has a real reputation for being lethal in front of goal. The Norwegian international is physical, tall and fast on the field, and he is an expert at getting on the end of chances near the penalty spot.
Liverpool bought a comparable type of player, albeit a little rough around the edges. The Reds brought Darwin Nunez to Anfield at the time, with the South American having recently burst on the scene for Benfica in Portugal, and the 22-year-old starlet has scored a total of 26 goals in the Primeira Liga.
Like Haaland, he was physical and tall but despite his impressive physique, he was extremely fast. Núñez is one of the best at threatening from behind the opposition defence, proving to be quite the weapon on the break, with Lionel Messi recently praising him for his pace after facing him at international level. : “Uruguay are good at rebounding and playing on the counter-attack in space. They have excellent players like Darwin for this.”
In fact, it was Guardiola who integrated his new signings fastest. The Spaniard immediately abandoned his strikerless system before moving towards something that would benefit from Haaland’s poaching tendencies, as he had no interest in moving into deeper areas like a traditional false nine.
Guardiola encouraged John Stones to become a makeshift midfielder, rotating from his traditional position as a right-back to the center whenever Manchester City had possession. Their extra presence created a box shape in the engine room, resulting in those players controlling the game at the Etihad.
Such dominance allowed Haaland to be almost devoid of possession, and devote all his energy to putting the ball in the net, which he did 36 times in his first Premier League campaign, setting records in the process. It took a little longer for Klopp to integrate Nunez, but the Uruguayan striker is now starting to justify his initial price tag.
He made a relatively slow start at Anfield, but experienced an improvement in his form as his boss essentially copied elements of Guardiola’s blueprint. Trent Alexander-Arnold has behaved like the Stones since April, dropping into the middle when Liverpool have the ball, allowing the Reds to establish their box shape in their midfield department.
Nunez has benefited from the new mobility. Like Haaland, he has enjoyed license to stay away from the ball, occupy the penalty box and generally act as a threat to the opposition defence. So far this season, no player in England has averaged more than 5.2 per 90, ahead of second-placed Arnaut Danjuma on 3.9 per 90.
Haaland are fourth in the division with the same numbers, and this coming weekend, the two strikers will meet in Manchester, with the Etihad set to host the high-profile clash between Liverpool and last season’s champions. It remains to be seen who will shine brightest on Saturday afternoon, but given the importance of both shooters, it is fair to suggest that the player in the spotlight will bring home three points for his team.
Nunez and Haaland are tactical clones of each other. When the Premier League returns in the coming days, they will compete for center stage in what promises to be an exciting spectacle between two forces of nature.