Manchester City and Liverpool have both retooled their attacks for the new Premier League season, with the identity of the new champions likely to depend on which adapts the fastest.
Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez had wildly contrasting first ‘competitive’ appearances for their new clubs at Saturday’s Community Shield in Leicester, where the Reds ran out 3-1 winners.
Perhaps it is unwise to draw conclusions from a game that is essentially a glorified friendly, but the way Nunez celebrated his goal off the bench indicated he was taking it extremely seriously.
Haaland, meanwhile, endured a very difficult day that was capped with a terrible late miss.
Adaptation needed for champions City
Wind the clock back a year. City spent much of the summer transfer window trying to do a deal for Harry Kane, but were unable to prise the England captain away from Tottenham. City then considered trying to sign either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi but eventually backed away.
Most pundits suggested their failure to land a striker as a replacement for the departing Sergio Aguero could prove to be a defining factor in the upcoming title race. And what happened?
Pep Guardiola used a revolving cast of forwards and midfield players as false nines and City won the league again relatively comfortably, making it four titles for them in the past five years. They fell short again in Europe though and it is in the Champions League knockout stages where they will be hoping the arrival of Haaland will make a key difference when it matters.
There is no need to repeat Haaland’s remarkable record, with the Norway international scoring his goals at an unbelievably rapid rate so far in his career. He is as close to a guarantee of goals as it comes in the game right now. But it is not immediately obvious how he will fit in at City.
Numerous times at the King Power Stadium, Haaland took up a position on the shoulder of a defender in the Liverpool line and made a run in behind. The ball was not played into his path. Many of Haaland’s goals at Salzburg, Borussia Dortmund and for his country have come from using his pace to run in behind, with his powerful frame difficult for defenders to stop once he gets going. But City have become unused to having that option since Aguero aged, while they frequently come up against a deep-lying defence that denied them space for through balls.
City will have to change for Haaland, learning to be more direct at times to make the most of his unique physical gifts. And he will have to develop the off-the-ball skills that Guardiola desires, deepening his understanding of when to drop deep to link the play and when to lurk in the box.
As it was, Haaland’s display on Saturday, which saw him complete only seven passes to his City team-mates, drew unfavourable comparisons to Romelu Lukaku’s travails at Chelsea last term.
Nunez follows Diaz with immediate impact
Liverpool’s front line used to pick itself, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah nailing their names on the team sheet for the biggest of matches. Firmino’s loss of form has reduced his influence in the past couple of years, with the extra goal threat posed by Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz cutting his minutes even before Nunez was signed for up to £85 million.
With Mane moving on to Bayern Munich to replace Barcelona-bound Robert Lewandowski, Liverpool wasted no time in landing Nunez, who impressed Jurgen Klopp with a brilliant audition across two legs when the Reds beat his Benfica side in the Champions League last season.
Diaz had already slotted straight into the team after joining from Porto in January. Diaz’s fine form meant Mane could play down the middle with Salah filling his usual spot on the right wing. Nunez now looks set to jostle with Jota and Firmino for starts in the central role, having demonstrated his penalty box prowess with a stooping header to seal the victory against City.
The immediate impact that has been made by the South American duo of Nunez and Diaz is testament to the outstanding recruitment department that is in place at Anfield, which this summer sold backup right-back Neco Williams to Nottingham Forest for £16 million and secured Calvin Ramsey from Aberdeen as Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deputy for a fraction of the price.
There looks likely to be little between Liverpool and City again this season, with another thrilling title race expected to be in the offing. Nunez and Haaland could hold the key and, on first impressions, Liverpool are more ready to hit the ground running with their new striker signing.