EPL

Haaland and Nunez have potential to reshape City, Liverpool and the Premier League title race

By Sports Desk July 30, 2022

This weekend's Community Shield sees the new English domestic season begin as the last one ended, with Manchester City and Liverpool doing battle.

City pipped Liverpool to the Premier League title, but the Reds got the better of Pep Guardiola's men in their FA Cup semi-final, going on to beat Chelsea in the decider and book their place in Saturday's curtain-raiser.

These two are expected to lead the way once again in 2022-23, yet plenty has changed in their ranks since they were last in action – particularly in attack.

At the Etihad Stadium, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling have departed to be replaced by Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez.

With Haaland's arrival perhaps the most notable in the Premier League during this close-season, Liverpool responded with their own big-money big man up front; Darwin Nunez was signed from Benfica to be flanked by the returning Mohamed Salah, but Sadio Mane is gone.

After several years of success at the forefront of English football, Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp appear set to reshape their teams around their latest buys.

Both managers lined up last season primarily without a traditional number nine.

Jesus may return to that role after joining Arsenal, but City's sole centre-forward often played from the right in 2021-22, taking only 16.0 per cent of his Premier League touches in the penalty area.

Haaland, by contrast, took 20.7 per cent of his Bundesliga touches in the box for Borussia Dortmund last term, which explains how a staggering 96.3 per cent of his shots were taken from inside the area – by far a higher share than that of any forward who played for City or Liverpool.

That mark comfortably tops Nunez's (74.1 per cent of shots in the box), too, but the 23-year-old also brings something new to a Reds outfit who have often deployed a false nine through the middle.

Roberto Firmino was that man for a long time and took only 9.5 per cent of his touches in the area last season. Nunez took a mammoth 24.5 per cent of his Primeira Liga touches within 18 yards of goal.

Staying in such positions so regularly helped to boost the shot conversion rates of Haaland (27.5 per cent) and Nunez (30.6 per cent), although both still impressively outperformed their expected goals (xG) totals; Haaland scored 22 from an xG of 18.5, while Nunez netted 26 from an xG of 18.4.

In fact, the numbers suggest Divock Origi was the only player across the best two squads in the Premier League who performed in a manner akin to that which might now be expected of the superstar duo.

Origi, who has left Liverpool for Milan, took 21.7 per cent of his touches in the box, and his shoot-on-sight policy saw an attempt at goal for every 6.9 touches (9.3 for Haaland, 9.8 for Nunez).

Yet this perhaps spoke as much to Origi's role as Liverpool's specialist rescue act as anything else; he made only seven appearances, all from the bench for a combined 126 minutes, yet scored three goals, converting 30.0 per cent of his shots.

Over the course of his time under Klopp, when he was occasionally asked to play wide, Origi's statistics were more in line with those of his former team-mates. Only 13.3 per cent of his touches came in the box, just 68.9 per cent of his shots were from within the same range, and those attempts arrived every 16.4 touches on average.

Maybe Klopp will also ask Nunez to push wide and stretch the play, maintaining the fluid forward line that saw winger Mane increasingly used through the centre in big games.

That should not necessarily hamper Nunez's hopes of scoring regularly; Salah could afford to marginally underperform his xG (23.8) and still strike 23 times in the league last season, playing from the right but taking 19.6 per cent of his touches in the box and needing only 12.4 on average to attempt a shot.

Prior to last season, Guardiola had at least been able to incorporate at City the sort of penalty-box striker he has signed in Haaland.

Sergio Aguero averaged a shot every 10.0 touches under Pep, with 17.8 per cent of his touches across five seasons coming inside the area.

And Haaland brings more to his game, too, if only due to his sheer size. The 1.94-metre ex-Dortmund man won 57.6 per cent of his aerial duels in 2021-22 – no City or Liverpool forward won more than half, with Nunez also lagging on 40.6 per cent.

But perhaps the former Guardiola player whose profile most resembles Haaland's is Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and his Barcelona career was not Pep's biggest success story.

Just as City will have to adapt to Haaland – perhaps by allowing him to compete aerially from a few of their trademark cutback crosses – so will he to them. The forward completed just 71.3 per cent of his passes in the league last season; that lax level of link-up is unlikely to wash in a Guardiola side, as Jesus (84.8 per cent), Sterling (85.4 per cent) and Riyad Mahrez (90.0 per cent) will attest.

Nunez completed 67.1 per cent of his league passes, which would similarly rank him last among Liverpool forwards, but he should at least be familiar with the high-pressing approach enforced by Klopp.

Liverpool led the Premier League in high turnovers (443 or 11.7 per game), average starting position (45.5m upfield) and opposition passes per defensive action (9.9 PPDA), while Benfica (9.0 high turnovers per game, 44.4m starting position and 8.7 PPDA) unsurprisingly ranked in the Primeira Liga's top three in each category.

So, there is plenty to be excited about both in Manchester and in Liverpool and yet great scope for potential teething problems.

The forthcoming title tussle could well be decided by how successfully Haaland and Nunez fit into these ruthless, relentless winning machines, and Saturday provides an early opportunity to assess that process.

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