he curtain has barely fallen on the 2021-2022 football season, and yet fans can barely wait till August for the 2022-2023 season to begin. This is especially true for the English Premier League, where the top two clubs, Manchester City and Liverpool, have recruited strikers that may decisively change the way the two clubs play.
Currently, perhaps no other clubs define what it means to have a ‘footballing philosophy’ than City and Liverpool. It’s becoming increasingly rare to find two other teams that are so profoundly cast in the image of their managers, and their preferred styles of play. In little over the past ten years, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have redefined how modern, elite football is played.
Guardiola had set the tactical revolution rolling, by making ball possession the keystone to his all conquering Barcelona side at the turn of the previous decade. Obsessed with midfield play, over his subsequent stints with Bayern Munich and then Manchester City, Guardiola has attempted to elevate football to the status of high stakes chess—with great success—where every pass, every attacking pattern, every phase of play is meticulously plotted.
While Guardiola was doing this, Klopp emerged in Germany with a different variation: Team play that swarms and overpowers the opposition by shrinking the middle of the pitch and pressing the opposing team into making mistakes in dangerous areas. Branded as “heavy metal football”, Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool teams play with a meticulously plotted precision that isn’t much different from Guardiola’s ‘tiki taka’.
Through the course of their epic rivalry in the Premier League, especially from 2018 onwards, the two premier coaches of world football have altered aspects of their playing philosophies, taking cues from the other. As a result, these days, you might find Manchester City pressing with ferocity, while Liverpool often take their foot off the gas to play a slower, more patient passing game.
The one thing that both Klopp and Guardiola have perfected, however, is how to play without relying on a classic number 9, the out-and-out striker. Guradiola had always revelled in using a false number 9, where the central striker would drop deep, stretching the opponents’ defensive shape, while a rotating cast of attacking midfielders would find themselves in scoring situations that would normally be occupied by a traditional striker. In Klopp’s variation, it’s the wingers that would move into the middle, to score off balls played into the penalty box by the full-backs. The nominal striker, more often than not, would have begun the move be dropping deep into midfield and passing to the full-back.
No wonder then that fans are excited with City and Liverpool’s marquee purchases: Erling Haaland and Darwin Núñez respectively. Neither is a false 9, but dedicated strikers with a single-minded obsession with scoring goals. Both are giants, whose games are predicated on power, precision, speed and the shortest route to goal. On the face of it, neither of these strikers, highly coveted in world football, fit the Guardiola or Klopp mould. While Haaland and Núñez are both skilled dribblers, as players, they have very little in common with a Mohamed Salah, a Roberto Firmino, a Raheem Sterling or a Bernardo Silva. Haaland and Núñez are both very young (21 and 22 respectively), but so far in their careers, they haven’t functioned as quick passing technicians. Maybe their youthful potential is the allure for their coaches.
But one thing is for sure. Both City and Liverpool have to adapt the way they play to suit the strengths of their new strikers. As far as Liverpool is concerned, Núñez could become a like-for-like replacement for Sadio Mané, but it would still be a departure for the way the Reds play. Klopp may well shift from his favoured 4-3-3 formation to 4-3-2-1 with Núñez at the tip of the attack.
It’s more intriguing how Guardiola might use Haaland. After all, City outscored everyone in the league even without a striker, and Haaland hasn’t shown any inclination of dropping deep, like Harry Kane, to start attacks before moving back in the box to finish the move. If Núñez and Haaland do click at their respective clubs, we’re certainly guaranteed more fireworks.