Erling Haaland at Man City and Darwin Nunez at Liverpool heralds a return of the Big Number Nine
Great attackers once roamed the Premier League in packs, terrorizing defenders wherever they went, but they have become a much rarer species over the past decade.
At the peak in 2011/12 there were more than 30 strikers of 1.80 m or taller in the highest class, but last season the number steadily decreased to well under half that number.
The shift reflects the more on-ball possession and counter-pressing play that teams in the Premier League have adopted in recent seasons, so the need for a goalkeeper who can grapple with defenders and gain possession at the top of the pitch has diminished.
Manchester City’s Erling Haaland faces a terrifying prospect for Premier League defenders
Darwin Nunez’s air power is expected to bring a new dimension to Liverpool’s attack
The prevalence of major strikers in the Premier League has declined over the past decade
But the arrival of two bruises in the form of Erling Haaland at Manchester City and Darwin Nunez at Liverpool. heralds the return of the ‘Big Lad’, or at least the classic Number Nine.
With a length of 1.80 meters and 1.80 meters respectively, the imposing pair must be taken into account and the recent trend will reverse.
“Traditionally in the Premier League, it was normally assumed that the striker would go up against a big, physical centre-back, so teams have looked for size,” said Ai Abacus analyst Andy Forrester.
‘But because teams have gained more ball possession, there is less direct football than has been played over the years. Now at least 10 of the 20 Premier League teams are trying to play from behind, so don’t wait too long.”
It was a rapid rise for Nunez – in 2019 he played for Uruguayan boys’ club Penarol
Haaland and Nunez fall into a category of players Klopp could describe as ‘talent monsters’. They have a physical and athletic prowess that will alarm defenders, as well as the skills, movement and mindset that go with them, making them truly feared opponents and devastating goalscorers.
Big number nines in the mythology of English football are robbery salesmen, whose job is to gain position on the pitch and then push into the penalty area to thump the cross home.
But Haaland, 21, and Nunez, 22, are much more than battering rams. They have a high level of technical and tactical skills, the strength to hold off defenders and cool-headedness in front of goal.
It is the combination of attributes that has made her such hot features and something we are used to admire in Harry Kane who is also 1.80m.
Haaland scored 59 goals in 65 Bundesliga appearances for Borussia Dortmund and last season Nunez scored 26 in 28 Primeira Liga appearances for Benfica in Portugal.
They are centre-forwards through and through, who like to counterbalance, but aren’t too interested in falling very deep to find the ball. They do their job on the other side of the field.
Nunez could prove to be the missing piece for Liverpool as their orthodox number 9 figure
Haaland is a handful across the opposition half. He’s eager to run after it and is deceptively fast, making his way into the half spaces along the sides of the central defenders.
Crucially, the Norwegian dominates the penalty area, working his way over and in front of the defenders to possess the nearest post one minute, before falling off their shoulders the next. He sniffs every loose ball in the box.
In 2020-21, Manchester City won the Premier League without a recognized striker, instead playing a whole cast of ‘false nines’. Last season, Gabriel Jesus came to the fore in City’s latest success, scoring eight league goals in 28 appearances, but even he played on a fluid five fronts.
Haaland is different and his addition to City is fascinating. It’s a move matched by Liverpool’s takeover of Nunez, in another example of Guardiola and Klopp pushing each other to ever higher levels of performance as they look for incremental improvement and advantage.
Haaland has the power to get over the front post and up the sides of the centre-backs
Nunez is also a strong runner and will try to take advantage of the pinnacle accuracy of Virgil van Dijk’s long passes as he drifts to the left, always vigilant for a finish penetrating on his right foot.
The Uruguayan is also excellent in the air. He has the height to gain a foothold with defenders in the penalty area and is not afraid to fight for the ball.
Despite their brilliance last season, the Liverpool forward, made up of Mohamed Salah (23 league goals), Diogo Jota (15) and Sadio Mane (16), occasionally struggled even as they dominated the game.
Think of Liverpool’s 1-1 draw against Tottenham at Anfield, a game that had a major impact on the title race. In that game, Klopp’s side produced 46 crosses – the most of any team in one game over the 2021-22 season. Nobody beat Hugo Lloris.
Add to that the fact that Trent Alexander-Arnold produced more right-back crosses than any player in the rest of the league. Service is not the problem; size.
Nunez is there to make sure there is another way to score.
Emile Heskey formed a fantastic partnership with Michael Owen at Liverpool
For years, Peter Crouch was the tallest player in the Premier League – 6 feet tall
Many of the biggest strikers seen in the Premier League in the last 15 years have been with clubs fleeing for survival, or at least trying to establish a foothold in a difficult division.
Wout Weghorst at Burnley, Chris Wood at Newcastle, Christian Benteke at Crystal Palace are some of the more recent examples. Go back a few years and you’ll find Peter Crouch at Stoke City, Steve Mounie and Laurent Depoitre at Huddersfield, Andy Carroll at West Ham and Victor Anichebe at Sunderland.
The best teams have of course also employed great center forwards. Didier Drogba at Chelsea and Edin Dzeko at Manchester City are prime examples of physically impressive players with fantastic technique, who can occupy two central defenders on their own and still create chances. It is therefore difficult to establish a clear pattern.
Andy Carroll is the classic British striker, a strong, fearless goalscorer
In recent years, England’s shift from a 4-4-2 system has likely contributed to the demise of the great striker. A physical striker was often accompanied by a more mobile frontman – Emile Heskey and Michael Owen at Liverpool a classic combination. The goal is to tie down the central defenders, while hoping to work the ball around them for the attacking partner.
Systems have become more flexible and never more so than at City and Liverpool.
However, the arrival of Haaland and Nunez marks an evolution. They will be traditional strikers, in non-traditional systems.
“This is a shift,” Forrester says. ‘Nunez is much more of a nine than’ [Klopp] played so far. Roberto Firmino is a false nine. And at City, Haaland is a classic nine. This is a change from the norm.’
City and Liverpool put on a great show last season, in the Premier League and in Europe. The addition of Haaland and Nunez can only make it more intriguing.