From Haaland to Núñez, big six’s striking rejigs raise more questions than answers | Jonathan Wilson
Can a team be too perfect? Could it be that if you have technically brilliant players in every position who have fully assimilated into a slickly intelligent system, the result is not a remorseless winning machine but a slightly cold entity so fixated on order that when disruption comes it is unable to cope?
In the aftermath of last season’s the Champions League exit against Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola dismissed suggestions that his team could not handle adversity, that crisis could send his sophisticated mechanisms haywire. But it is at the very least intriguing that City’s two highest-profile recent signings, Jack Grealish and Erling Haaland, are both disruptors who do not seem a natural fit for his precisely ordered universe.
As City look to make it five Premier League titles in six seasons, a level of dominance in English football achieved only twice before, by Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United between 1995-96 and 2000-01 and Liverpool’s run from 1978-79 to 1983-84, Haaland is this summer’s most significant signing. His arrival, though, is part of a more general picture of the key challengers tweaking their attacking options. Of the Big Six, only Manchester United are yet to sign a forward but the Cristiano Ronaldo saga could result in a major change to their front line.
Haaland is a risk. He is clearly a footballer of astonishing potential, one of those outsized forwards who crop up infrequently and for a time make the game seem laughably simple. He has scored 78 league goals over the past three seasons; he himself has spoken of watching City and imagining how many goals he would score just like the one he got 12 minutes into his first appearance for the club, a friendly against Bayern, jabbing in a low cross from close range. But what matters for City is less whether he bangs in 30 or 40 over the campaign than whether he can provide ruthlessness in the big Champions League games in which they keep on falling just short.
His rough edges, his idiosyncrasies, may be what allow him to do that, untethering him from the City system, making their attacking play less predictable. (Are they predictable, and is that a problem if they are? Even that is not apparent). City do have a clear pattern – there is an obvious City type of goal, the low cutback for an oncoming player – but that works in almost all circumstances, which is why they have been top scorers in each of the last five league seasons. The problem is that the circumstance in which it perhaps doesn’t work is against the very best sides in the very biggest games and, by definition, there are very few of them, meaning the data set is necessarily slight.
But those rough edges, his bullish self-assurance, may be what creates friction. Haaland has been open about his admiration for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who lasted just one acrimonious season under Guardiola at Barcelona and sneered about the “obedient little schoolboys” who comprised the rest of the squad. Haaland’s goal against Bayern was set up by Grealish and he spoke after that game of how he liked his “vibes”.
Grealish, it seemed, was signed to add a little anarchy to the neat passing of the forward line, a balancing act he admitted he had found difficult; his interview on the final day in which he spoke of how inhibited he at times felt by the demands of the system was as revealing as anything about the compromises demanded by Guardiola’s methods. Perhaps the two can add improvisation that will raise City to greater heights, but it is a risk.
The refashioning of Liverpool’s forward line had been anticipated for a while. Liverpool have been very efficient in recent years in identifying targets early and evolving without great ructions but the loss of Sadio Mané and the addition of Darwin Núñez to a front three that only saw the arrival of Luis Díaz in January inevitably means uncertainty. Díaz was widely seen as having assimilated quickly but was ineffective in the Champions League final, though, and there must have been concerns about the way that Mané’s move into the centre seemed to impinge on Mohamed Salah’s form in the second half of last season.
The great Soviet-era coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi observed that at the highest level the bonds between players are at least as important as the players themselves; finding a trio whose chemistry had such a mutually beneficial impact is extremely difficult. It may be that Salah, Núñez, Díaz is even greater than Salah, Roberto Firmino, Mané, but it may not.
It may be a necessary part of their development, but Chelsea seem to have taken a step back from last season. Adding Raheem Sterling and offloading Romelu Lukaku changes the dynamic of the attack, but Chelsea want to add one other forward. That Todd Boehly has been doing the job of sporting director perhaps hasn’t helped recruitment, but repeatedly being gazumped by Barcelona, a club with no money, is an admittedly harsh lesson in the chimerical economics of modern football.
In adding Richarlison, Tottenham have added depth and variety and should have relieved some of the pressure on Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, while Gabriel Jesus seems a more natural fit for Mikel Arteta’s plans at Arsenal than Alexandre Lacazette ever did, even if doubts remain about his finishing.
And then there is Ronaldo, the albatross United gleefully tied around their necks last season that, despite his best efforts, they seem unable to lose. He does not – cannot – fit Erik ten Hag’s system, and if he does somehow remain at the club, particularly given all the stories about his attitude to pressing drills in training last season, it’s hard to see how he would not be a disruptive presence.
The contenders will be the same as ever: City or possibly Liverpool are likely to be champions and the battle for Champions League qualification will almost certainly be between the familiar six sides. But in the rejigging of forward lines there is an element of jeopardy and it is in that uncertainty that the initial fascination of this season’s title race lies.