Time for the Premier League’s leading lights to adjust their eyelines. Two big, lofty, muscular and hungry strikers are about to distance the best two clubs in the toughest domestic league in football from the rest of English football’s top division. And it will be hard to miss them.
Darwin Nunez, the latest star from that fertile nursery that is Uruguayan goalscorers, has touched down in Liverpool to complete the formalities of a transfer that could be worth up to €90 million ($93.8m) to the selling club, Benfica. As Nunez was introducing himself to Anfield staff, Manchester City unveiled Erling Haaland, whose transfer from Borussia Dortmund was agreed some weeks ago.
It will not be long before they are each being pictured at pre-season practice among the established senior players at their ground-breaking new clubs. That’s when one of the shared features of these two freshmen will become very apparent.
Haaland, who turns 22 next month, is a towering 1.94 metres; Nunez, nearly 23, stands at 1.88m. Besides the injection of youth these deals represent, and the confidence City and Liverpool hold that these are footballers with many years to continue their prolific scoring, they indicate a significant change in style at both teams – or at least alternatives in the ways City and Liverpool transition from defence to attack.
Haaland and Nunez have the imposing frames, the balance and an agility on the turn to finesse the way Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s sides counter-attack. The goalkeepers, Ederson and Alisson, both prized for their accurate, long-range distribution, will be among the first to take note.
Where Alisson, and the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold have been used to spraying their longer passes into the paths of Mohamed Salah (1.75m), Sadio Mane (1.74m) and Diogo Jota (1.78m) they can now look forward to Nunez receiving with his back to goal, winning aerial duels with tall markers. The likes of Salah, Jota and Luis Diaz should in turn benefit from the Uruguayan’s layoffs.
City have likewise been monitoring for some years that aspect of Haaland’s brilliant all-round game. Where Ederson has at times looked ahead and squinted to pick out Raheem Sterling (1.7m), Phil Foden (1.71m) or Bernardo Silva (1.73m) as his options for the sudden, long ball, he will now have, alongside City’s delicate runners and dribblers, the great blond lighthouse that is Haaland.
Both will need to earn their places in the starting XIs, as their managers plot the shifts in style that they hope will enhance two already thrilling sides.
The step up from the Portuguese Primeira Liga, where Benfica finished third last month, to a Premier League where Liverpool have just finished a point behind City – while scoring more goals than any club other than City or Bayern Munich from the top five European leagues – is significant.
But Liverpool are encouraged by how rapidly Diaz, signed from Porto in January, adapted to his new club on leaving Portugal and two months ago they saw at first hand how Nunez can thrive in the best company. He scored in both legs of the 6-4 aggregate Liverpool win over Benfica in the quarter-final of the Champions League. Van Dijk later likened Nunez to Haaland: “They’re a bit similar,” said the Dutch defender, “direct, quick, tall and strong, and difficult to play against.”
Nunez also netted twice in the Champions League group phase against Barcelona, once against Bayern, and scored the goal that put Benfica into the last eight at Ajax’s expense. All this in his debut campaign in the senior Uefa competition, building on a bright Europa League season in 2020-21, when he started five times for Benfica and registered five goals.
Haaland has been bettering that sort of record in Europe since he was 18, and although he will come up against some tougher, better marshalled defences than some of the ones he bullied in Germany – and before that, for RB Salzburg in Austria – his credentials, the quality that has made him, alongside Kylian Mbappe, the most coveted forward of his generation, have consistently been displayed in European competition.
He has 23 goals from a mere 19 outings so far in the Champions League, the trophy City are yet to claim and have made their principal target.
“It’s the competition that’s a bit more special in my eyes,” said Haaland.
“I think it’s a good fit,” he added of his move, “I think I can develop a lot under Pep, and I like the style and the positive vibe.”