Darwin Núñez and Erling Haaland both moved to the Premier League in the summer just gone, and the pair epitomised their similarities inside 60 seconds on Thursday night.
Liverpool’s system has operated in a specific manner since Jürgen Klopp took charge in 2015. Over time, the German established a means of playing that was essentially strikerless, with Roberto Firmino deployed as his number nine despite the peculiar tendencies of the Brazilian.
Rather than behaving like a typical striker by occupying the penalty box and obsessing over nothing but goals, the South American has instead performed like a midfielder of sorts. Firmino drifts into deeper areas away from goal, creating spaces for the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané — who is now at Bayern Munich — to attack by making inside runs from wide.
Liverpool have largely operated without a fixed striker up top because of Klopp’s faith in Firmino, instead creating a platform for wide forwards to prosper. It didn’t take long for Manchester City to follow suit, with Sergio Agüero leaving the Etihad in 2021 after an injured-plagued campaign.
Pep Guardiola deployed the likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as his ‘striker’, with those players rotating and interchanging in the final third, allowing goals to be spread across the team instead of relying on one prominent individual to deliver all of the big moments.
Both Liverpool and Manchester City delivered success using strikerless systems but in the summer just gone, they made the same move in the transfer market. The former picked up Darwin Núñez from Benfica, and the latter secured the signature of Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund.
The duo are tall, physical, energetic, youthful and rapid across the ground, and on Thursday night, they faced each other as opponents at the Etihad Stadium. A place in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup was up for grabs and inside the first 60 seconds, both players assumed the spotlight.
In the opening minute of the high-profile bout, Núñez and Haaland highlighted their respective impacts on Liverpool and Manchester City in how they managed to gain big chances to score.
First, İlkay Gündoğan played a through ball to Haaland behind Klopp’s defensive line before the Norwegian hit over the bar with his shot, and just seconds later, Núñez did the same. A through ball was played through the centre of the pitch with the Uruguayan striker playing on the shoulder of Aymeric Laporte, but he failed to convert his effort.
The 60-second spell epitomised the tactical changes enforced by the two stars. Before them, the players up top and through the middle for Liverpool and Manchester City would offer a passing option by making withdrawn movements into deeper areas. Núñez and Haaland, by contrast, are inclined to run in the opposite direction.
Klopp and Guardiola can now cut open their opponents with one pass straight through the middle of the pitch, and that hasn’t been the case for either team in a long time, especially when it comes to the Reds.
Such a tactical shift is bound to require time and work on the training ground — which perhaps explains why Arsenal are currently top of the Premier League. But once both players are fully integrated, the next rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester City will truly begin.