Huge strikers once roamed the Premier League in packs, terrorising defenders wherever they went, but they have become a much rarer species in the past decade.
At the peak, there were well over 30 centre forwards of six foot two or taller operating in the top flight in 2011/12, but the number fell steadily to well under half that figure last season.
The shift reflects the more possession-based and counter-pressing game adopted by teams in the Premier League in recent seasons, so the need for a target man who can wrestle defenders and gain possession at the top end of the pitch has diminished.
Manchester City’s Erling Haaland is going to a fearsome prospect for Premier League defenders
Darwin Nunez’s aerial power is expected to bring a new dimension to Liverpool’s attack
The prevalence of big centre forwards has declined in the Premier League in the last decade
But the arrival of two bruising forwards 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.
At six-foot five and six-foot two inches, respectively, the imposing pair will have to be reckoned with and are set to reverse the recent trend.
‘Traditionally, in the Premier League, the normal assumption was the striker would be up against a big, physical centre back, so teams have looked for size,’ reflected Ai Abacus analyst Andy Forrester.
‘But because teams have become more possession-based there is less direct football than has been played over the years. Now, at least ten out of the 20 Premier League teams try to play out from the back so don’t go long anymore.’
It has been a rapid rise for Nunez – in 2019 he was playing for boyhood club Penarol in Uruguay
Haaland and Nunez fall into a category of player that Klopp might describe as ‘talent monsters’. They have a physicality and athleticism that will alarm defenders, but also the skills, movement and mentality to go with it making them truly feared opponents and devastating goalscorers.
Big number nines in the mythology of English football are hold-up merchants, whose job is to gain position on the field and then push for the penalty area to thump home the cross.
But Haaland, 21, and Nunez, 22, are much more than battering rams. They have a high level of technical and tactical skill, the strength to hold off defenders and a coolness in front of goal.
It is the combination of attributes that has made them such hot properties and something we have grown used to admiring in Harry Kane, who is also six foot two.
Haaland scored 59 goals in 65 Bundesliga games for Borussia Dortmund and last season, Nunez struck 26 in 28 Primeira Liga matches for Benfica in Portugal.
They are out-and-out centre forwards, happy to counterpress but not too interested in dropping very deep to find the ball. They do their work at the other end of the field.
Nunez could prove to be the missing piece for Liverpool as their orthodox No 9 figure
Haaland is a handful all over the opposition half. He is eager to run in behind and is deceptively quick, forcing his way into the half-spaces down the sides of the centre- backs.
Crucially, the Norwegian dominates the penalty area, bullying his way across and in front of defenders to own the near post one minute, before dropping off their shoulder the next. He snaffles any loose ball in the box.
In 2020-21, Manchester City won the Premier League without a recognised striker, instead playing an entire 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 across a fluid front five.
Haaland is different and his addition to City is fascinating. It is a move that has been matched by Liverpool in acquiring Nunez, in another example of Guardiola and Klopp driving each other to ever greater levels of performance as they seek out incremental improvement and advantage.
Haaland has the strength to get across the front post and down the sides of the centre backs
Nunez is also a strong runner and will look to capitalise on the dead-eye accuracy of Virgil van Dijk’s long passes as he drifts out to the left, ever vigilant for a finish cutting in on his right foot.
The Uruguayan is also excellent in the air. He has the height to go toe-to-toe with defenders in the penalty area and is not afraid to have a fight for the ball.
Despite their brilliance last season, Liverpool’s forward line of Mohamed Salah (23 league goals), Diogo Jota (15 )and Sadio Mane (16), there was the occasional struggle even when dominating the game.
Consider Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham at Anfield, a match which had a significant bearing on the title race. In that game, Klopp’s side produced 46 crosses – the most of any team in a single match throughout the 2021-22 season. Not one beat Hugo Lloris.
Add in too that Trent Alexander-Arnold produced more crosses from right back than any player in the rest of the league. Service isn’t the issue; size is.
Nunez is there to make sure there is another way to score.
Emile Heskey formed a fantastic partnership with Michael Owen at Liverpool
For many years Peter Crouch was the tallest player in the Premier League – six feet eight inches
Many of the biggest strikers seen in the Premier League during the past 15 years have been at clubs scrapping for survival, or at least scrambling for a firm foothold in a tough division.
Wout Weghorst at Burnley, Chris Wood at Newcastle, Christian Benteke at Crystal Palace being some of the more recent examples. Go back a few years and you would 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 employed big centre forwards, too, of course, Didier Drogba at Chelsea and Edin Dzeko at Manchester City being prime examples of physically imposing players with fantastic technique, who could occupy two centre-backs all on their own and still fashion chances. So, a clear cut pattern is difficult to establish.
Andy Carroll is the classic British centre forward, a physically strong, fearless goal scorer
In recent years, the shift in England from a 4-4-2 system has probably contributed to the decline of the big centre forward. A physical striker was often paired with a more mobile front man – Emile Heskey and Michael Owen at Liverpool a classic combination. The aim being to tie up the central defenders, while hoping to work the ball around them for the strike 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 centre forwards, in untraditional systems.
‘This is a shift,’ says Forrester. ‘Nunez is much more of a nine than [Klopp] has 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 even more intriguing.
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