August 11, 2022

Darwin Núñez (l.)
Photo: Getty Images

The narrative between Liverpool and Manchester City has always been something like the A’s and the Yankees of the early 2000s. The two powerhouses in one league operating on completely different plans and by wildly different methods. The big bad guy with all the cash that can get him out of anything, and the brave little guy with the wacky new ideas and a whole organization that needs to be in sync to function optimally. Nerds versus sportsmen, in some ways. Even back then, that wasn’t entirely true. Yeah, the Yankees had a ton of money, but the backbone of that team was still as homegrown as the A’s.

In reality, City are more strategy-focused than their endless money allows, and Liverpool haven’t been afraid to spend tons when needed. And while it’s fun for Liverpool supporters to cast themselves as the heavyweight, pocket-turned underdogs, it certainly feels like this summer they’re being dragged into deep waters to continue their competition with City.

It looks like City’s purchase of striker Erling Haaland, combined with their one-point Premier League win, has taken Liverpool out of their comfort zone. Over the weekend it got as official as it gets without being official as Liverpool spend $74m on Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, and that total could reach $104 million with add-ons. It’s a club record for Liverpool, exceeding what they paid for Virgil van Dijk.

And that’s irrelevant for Liverpool. When they entered the transfer fee stratosphere, it was for players who were either the finished product or close to both van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson. These purchases were funded by the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barca, and the two were on the verge of becoming perhaps the best in the world at their position, if not already. The move to Liverpool for both was certainly the last step in becoming one. And both were 25 or 26, basically about to embark on the prime of their careers.

Núñez is none of that. It is much more promising. That’s not to say that just tearing up the Portuguese Primeira Liga and Champions League at just 22 is anything to sneeze at. This is really not the case. Núñez scored 24 league goals in just 28 appearances and then added six more in 10 Champions League games, scoring twice against Barca, Munich, Ajax and Liverpool. It’s already a formidable weapon, but it’s far from what it could become given its age. At least, that’s what Liverpool hope.

Because it’s still just one season of dominance on his resume, and in a second-tier league. Van Dijk already played two and a half full seasons in the Premier League before joining. Alisson only had one season in Europe before moving to Anfield, but that was at least in Serie A. It’s a much bigger leap.

Another difference between Liverpool’s and City’s forward splurges this summer is that City are simply adding Haaland to the Premier League champions, where Liverpool will (likely) replace a main cog in all their success. The urgency to sign Núñez comes as Sadio Mané looks certain to leave for Bayern Munich this summer, and Mo Salah might not be too far behind him out the exit door next summer, depending on how contract negotiations took place between him and the club. If Haaland somehow doesn’t work out and fires a Lukaku at City, they can just fall back on what worked in previous seasons. For Liverpool and Nunez, it basically has to work and work perfectly, and from the rue du saut. Neither City nor Liverpool leave the other much room for error in a season.

If there is any similarity between the two signings and the two players, it is that both are very different from what has happened before at each club. In Haaland’s case, it’s a minor change. Haaland isn’t really known for linking and launching attacks as much as finishing them, and he’s very direct. City is anything but direct, most of the time at least, and there is a bit of a mystery how Haaland can fit into this complexity that Pep Guardiola prefers. In their strikerless seasons for the past two years, their offense was based on constant movement and rallies that made it seem like everyone was attacking from all angles and everywhere. At Haaland, you know where he’s going to be, and he’s not designed to drop into midfield to tie things up. Or at least that’s not his forte. Haaand is also not pressing at all (27th percentile of pressures according to FBRef.com), and that is not going to fly with City. He’s still at an age where Guardiola probably feels like he can turn him into a complete Swiss army knife of a striker.

Núñez is even weirder now. The centre-forward place in Jurgen Klopp’s line-up and tactics is as much about creating as it is about scoring. And Núñez doesn’t…well, pass. According to FBRef.com, he is in the 9th percentile of expected assists for forwards. He is 17th in attempted passes. He is in the 1st (!) in percentage of success. If the centre-forward of Klopp’s system were measured on a spectrum, at one end you’d have Roberto Firmino, the subtle security-system hacking genius who moves into midfield and creates everything in front of him. In the middle would be Mané, who took the place of Firmino in the second half last year, who made a lot more creations than he got from dropping in midfield, combined with his full strength finishing in the surface. Núñez is on the other end of the spectrum, a complete battering ram of a striker who is at least going to have to learn how to do the other things.

If that’s what Liverpool have in mind. Klopp once had a real No.9, at Dortmund with Robert Lewandowsk. He spoke wistfully of how he wished Daniel Sturridge had stayed in one piece so he could use him in the same way at Liverpool. But how will Liverpool fill this creative gap with Núñez? A switch to 4-2-3-1? They don’t really have a player who can play at the tip of those three behind Núñez. Using more than one #10 in the middle of their usual 4-3-3? Again, they don’t really have that guy.

What is clear is that Mane’s desire to leave has forced Liverpool to transform their front line not just for the present for the future, with Núñez, Luís Diaz and Diogo Jota driving them forward (with the help of Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott, probably) if Salah leaves. Clinging to City’s financial might and Guardiola’s brilliance is an almost impossible task. It involves taking the kind of risk that City don’t have to because they can always buy again. Liverpool are now pushing the car into the red (get it?) and braking late, but sometimes that’s the only way to keep up.