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THE narrative lines have already been drawn. In pre-season. Liverpool have signed a flaky one. Manchester City have reeled in a monster. Darwin Núñez is making a mockery of his own name, seemingly incapable of surviving the fittest around him. And Erling Haaland is a destroyer of men, crushing egos like a drunken Viking on a night out.
Yes, it’s all getting a little carried away. The English Premier League season hasn’t started yet. On Sunday, the two strikers may cross paths in the Community Shield, which has all the sporting significance of a shopping mall meet-and-greet session.
It’s not a life-altering, culture-shifting event here, but the curtain raiser could at least take a stab at tweaking those simplistic narrative lines.
As it stands, the Haaland-Nunez saga has borrowed a couple of caricatures from a pantomime, with social media forums and tweeters chiming in as the Greek Chorus, chanting the same, collective thoughts … Nunez can’t score! Nunez will flop! What a waste of money! ... Haaland can score! Haaland will fly! What a bargain!
Of course, the simplistic characterisations and predictions are understandable, to a point. Pep Guardiola has signed a scoring machine in its distilled form, the definitive athletic specimen for the task at hand. At 22, Haaland swaggered into Manchester to the mashed-up themes of Robocop and The Terminator. Every muscular step should be accompanied with that synthesised “doof, doof, doof” of Robocop, with Arnie’s reddened eyeball gazing upon a cowering pack of journalists.
Haaland has already played up to the half man-half killjoy stereotype, greeting reporters by saying, “if you ask me stupid questions you will get stupid answers.”
It’s easy to hear his veiled threats in Schwarzenegger’s robotic, Teutonic drawl, underlining the cold, relentless approach of a striker who scored 78 goals in 70 Bundesliga league starts across four seasons.
Haaland exists to score. All other concerns are trivial, peripheral. Pressure is for other people. Regular people. People like Nunez.
If that Robocop-Terminator mash-up movie went into production, then the current Nunez would almost certainly be cast as the tattooed, ponytailed assassin, content to dominate all the small town action, until the cyborg-like Haaland turns up and knocks him through a wall.
Nunez is the green one, the raw commodity with an itchy trigger finger, elevated to the big leagues without really knowing if he has the temperament to make it to the final reel.
The 23-year-old disappointed in Singapore and squandered a couple of decent chances in the recent 1-0 loss against RB Salzburg – Liverpool’s final friendly before the Community Shield. Jurgen Klopp deflected, as usual, protecting his new signing by finding fault in Nunez’s team-mates.
They needed to find their lost boy.
And like that, he’s gone, written off as a costly, desperate gamble, a square peg for the round chasm left behind by Sadio Mane, a bit-part Red to follow Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino, rather than a totemic presence capable of leading the line.
Again, to state the bleeding obvious, a ball has yet to be kicked in the EPL and already Roberto Firmino is getting the nod for the Community Shield, the opening weeks of the season, or indefinitely, depending on the clairvoyant’s level of hysteria.
But Mane never led the line in a conventional sense. Mo Salah was and remains the spiritual leader of Liverpool’s famed attacking triumvirate, top scoring and typically dominating, though Mane’s productive relationship with his team-mates will be sorely missed.
Klopp’s gegenpressing leads to a wider distribution of goals – five Reds reached double figures last season – and Nunez’s 34-goal haul in 41 Benfica outings last season left him with a minutes per goal ratio (84.39) that was only bettered by Robert Lewandowski (84.31) across Europe’s top six leagues last season (from a minimum of 19 games).
Nunez will score his share of goals under the guidance of a manager blessed with both a patient disposition and an accommodating boardroom. The same cannot be said at City.
Within Pep Guardiola’s dressing room, Haaland’s peerless ability to score goals in large quantities will be met with a collective, ‘So what?’
“He can help us score more. It is not about that. In the end it is about winning games.”
Those were the underwhelming words of Haaland’s new manager, back in May, when an indifferent Guardiola issued both a backhanded compliment and a warning.
Haaland wasn’t signed to follow his established directives of shoot, score and win. Such laser-like focus isn’t a rarity at the Etihad. It’s commonplace. Expected. His City team-mates may lack his imposing stature, but they managed just fine without him, winning a fourth title in five years by scoring 99 goals last season.
The Robocop routine doesn’t really wash at a club determined to do a little washing of its own at the biggest laundromat: the Champions League. City’s owners are more interested in soft power than Shakespeare. Haaland cannot merely be a player on the world stage, but a winner in Europe.
The Norwegian was not acquired to replicate the high scores against the likes of Leeds United and Leicester City, but to put away the chances missed against Real Madrid in the Champions League, the elusive Holy Grail, the one that forever gets away.
Haaland was signed to finally satisfy the geopolitical ambitions of a foreign power with limitless financial resources and achieve continental supremacy.
No pressure then, Erling.
Oh, and to make all of the above happen, a team that regularly out-passes every opponent must now accommodate a striker who regularly makes fewer passes than every other major goalscorer in Europe’s top leagues.
Nunez, on the other hand, just has to knock in a few goals.
Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but the one-dimensional characterisation does neither striker any favours, casting Nunez and Haaland into simplistic David and Goliath roles that underplay their distinct and complex challenges ahead.
The outcome is uncertain, but the unforgiving pressure is guaranteed, for both men.
The one-dimensional characterisation does neither striker any favours, casting Nunez and Haaland into simplistic David and Goliath roles that underplay their distinct and complex challenges ahead.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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