The narrative between Liverpool and Manchester City has always been something like the A’s and Yankees from the early 2000s. The two powers of a league operating on completely different planes and through wildly different methods. The Big Bad with all the money that can buy their way out of anything, and the plucky little guy with the wacky new ideas and an entire organization that has to be in sync to run optimally. The nerds vs. the jocks, in some ways. Even back then that wasn’t completely true. Yeah, the Yankees had a ton of money, but the spine of that team was still as much homegrown as the A’s was.
In reality, City are more strategy-driven than their endless money allows them to be considered, and Liverpool haven’t been afraid to spend oodles when needed. And while it’s fun for Liverpool supporters to cast themselves as the heavy, pockets-turned-out underdogs, it certainly feels like this summer they’re being dragged into the deep water to continue their competition with City.
It looks like City’s purchase of striker Erling Haaland, combined with their one-point victory in the Premier League, has rattled Liverpool out of their comfort zone. Over the weekend, it became as official as it can get without being official that Liverpool are splashing $74 million on Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, and that total could rise to $104 million with add-ons. It is a club record for Liverpool, topping what they paid for Virgil van Dijk.
And it is out of character for Liverpool. When they’ve gone into the stratosphere of transfer fees, it’s been for players that were either the finished product or close to it, both van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson. Those purchases were funded by the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barca, and both were poised to become maybe the very best in the world at their position, if not already. Certainly the move to Liverpool for both was the last step to becoming that. And both were either 25 or 26, essentially just about to embark on the very prime of their careers.
Núñez is none of that. He’s a whole lot more promise. That’s not to say that simply tearing the Portuguese Primeira Liga and Champions League apart at just age 22 is something to sneeze at. It is very much not. Núñez racked up 24 goals in the league in just 28 appearances, and then added six more in 10 Champions League games, scoring against Barca, Munich, Ajax, and Liverpool twice. This is already a formidable weapon, but he’s far from what he might become given his age. At least, that’s what Liverpool are hoping.
Because it’s still only one season of dominance on his resume, and in a second-tier league. Van Dijk has 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 it was at least in Serie A. This is a much bigger jump.
Another difference between Liverpool’s and City’s striker-splurge this summer is that City is merely adding Haaland to the Premier League champions, where Liverpool are (likely) to be replacing a main cog of all their success. The urgency to sign Núñez springs from Sadio Mané looking certain to leave for Bayern Munich this summer, and Mo Salah might not be too far behind him out the exit door next summer, based on how contract negotiations have gone between him and the club. If Haaland, somehow and however unlikely, doesn’t work and pulls a Lukaku at City, they can just fall back on what’s worked the previous seasons. For Liverpool and Nunez, this basically has to work and work flawlessly, and from jump street. Neither City nor Liverpool allow the other much room for error over a season.
If there’s a similarity between the two signings and two players, it’s that both are very different from what’s come before at each club. In Haaland’s case, it’s a minor change. Haaland isn’t really known for linking and starting attacks so much as finishing them, and he’s very direct. City are anything but direct, most of the time at least, and there’s a little mystery how Haaland can fit into that intricacy that Pep Guardiola prefers. In their strikerless seasons of the past two, their attack was based on constant movement and interchanges that felt like everyone was attacking from everywhere at every angle. In Haaland, you know where he’s going to be, and he’s not designed to drop into midfield to link things. Or at least it’s not his forte. Haaand also doesn’t press at all (27th percentile in pressures according to FBRef.com), and that’s not going to fly at City. He’s still at an age where Guardiola probably feels like he can mold him into a complete Swiss Army knife of a forward.
Núñez is even more of an odd fit currently. The center forward spot in Jurgen Klopp’s lineup and tactics is just as much about creation as it is scoring. And Núñez doesn’t…well, pass. According to FBRef.com, he’s in the 9th percentile in expected assists for forwards. He’s 17th in passes attempted. He’s in the 1st (!) in pass-completion percentage. If the center forward in Klopp’s system were measured on a spectrum, on one end you’d have Roberto Firmino, the subtle, lock-picking, security system hacking genius moving into midfield and creating everything in front of him. In the middle would be Mané, who moved into Firmino’s position in the second half last year, who did a lot more creating than he got credit for by dropping into midfield, combined with his full force finishing in the box. Núñez is at the other end of the spectrum, a complete battering ram of a striker who is at least going to have to be taught how to do the other stuff.
If that’s what Liverpool have in mind. Klopp has had a true #9 before, at Dortmund with Robert Lewandowsk. He has spoken wistfully of how he wished Daniel Sturridge could have stayed in one piece so he could have used him in the same fashion at Liverpool. But how will Liverpool make up that creative gap with Núñez? A switch to a 4-2-3-1? They don’t really have a player that can play at the tip of that three behind Núñez. Using more of a #10 in the middle of their usual 4-3-3? Again, they don’t really have that guy.
What’s clear is that Mane’s desire to leave has forced Liverpool to turn over their front line for not just the present for the future, with Núñez, Luís Diaz, and Diogo Jota taking them forward (with help from Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott, likely) if Salah leaves. Hanging with City’s financial might and Guardiola’s brilliance is a nearly impossible task. It involves taking the kind of risks 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.