Erling Haaland, Darwin Núñez and Rediscovering the No. 9


It took Erling Haaland a couple of seconds to notice something had changed. Late last month, Haaland, the Norwegian striker, was inside the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance, patiently and quietly going through the many and monotonous steps of the medical exam that was part of his move to Manchester City.

At one point, stripped down to nothing but a pair of briefs, Haaland was asked to take a deep breath and stand perfectly still, so that the club could get an accurate read of his height. He did as he was told. “OK, 1.952 meters,” the physician guiding him through the exam said, jotting down the figure on a piece of paper.

That, Haaland thought, was not right. Everyone knows their own height. He checked what the doctor had recorded. There was the answer again. 1.952. “Wow,” Haaland said, sounding genuinely pleased with himself. “I’ve grown. Almost a whole centimeter.” A meaningful one, too: those extra few millimeters had tipped Haaland over a threshold. At the age of 21, he was now, officially, 6 feet 4 inches.

Size is significant when it comes to Haaland. That is not to diminish his rich array of other qualities as a striker — his technical ability, his movement, his intelligence, his capacity to drop deep and build play, the power and precision of his finishing from either foot — and it is not something that exists in isolation.

Indeed, watching Haaland in the flesh, what stands out first is his speed. Haaland is quick. He accelerates almost instantaneously, and then eats up the ground in front of him, his stride long and elegant. It is only after a beat that it is possible to realize that what makes that speed so striking is that it is unexpected, that it is being produced by a man with that frame.

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Nor is it to pigeonhole the type of player he is, or to ponder how he will fit in to the intricate, delicate style of play preached by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Haaland has not been bought as some sort of battering ram. He is far more than a target man. It is just that, at first glance, that is how he is built.

On a very basic level, Haaland is large, undeniably so. He is especially large in context. Elite soccer is populated, these days, by slight, almost elfin figures. Haaland is a head taller than most forwards. He towers over most fullbacks and wings. He has aerial clearance over central midfielders. He might even find the majority of central defenders a little diminutive.

Darwin Nuñez, the Uruguayan forward added to Liverpool’s ranks by Jürgen Klopp this week, is similar. He is not quite so tall — only 6-foot-1, unless he, like Haaland, still has growing to do — but he possesses a similar profile. He drifts wide, rather than deep, to find space. He accelerates rapidly. He moves smartly.

But he is, as Klopp noted, “powerful,” too. Liverpool’s forward line, these last few years, has been constructed around three players — Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah — who fit the accepted mold for modern forwards. They are nimble, fleet-footed, technically flawless. None, though, could be described as “powerful,” not in the sense that Nuñez is powerful.

Klopp did have a more robust option at his disposal, in the form of Divock Origi, when he felt it was required — such as when needing a goal in a Champions League final, or playing Everton. Origi was, though, viewed more as a chaos agent than anything else; he was deployed almost exclusively as a Plan B. Like Guardiola, Klopp seemed to have moved beyond the idea of what might be called a “traditional” center-forward.

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That both have, this summer, committed considerable proportions of their transfer budgets to inverting that mode, then, is significant. The explanations may be distressingly straightforward. City creates a plethora of chances every single game; adding Haaland is a surefire way to ensure more of them are turned into goals. Liverpool has, in Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a precise aerial supply line. It makes sense to exploit it.

Or it may, perhaps, hint at a shift that has ramifications outside the rarefied air of the Premier League’s top two. Strikers — pure, thoroughbred strikers — have become vanishingly rare over the last decade. Between the generation represented by Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Sergio Agüero and Luis Suárez — all in their mid-thirties now — and the one spearheaded by Kylian Mbappé, Haaland and, possibly, Nuñez, the No. 9 almost died out.

True, there have been occasional oases in the desert: Harry Kane, a late bloomer at Tottenham Hotspur, and Romelu Lukaku, who flowered sufficiently early in Belgium that despite being five years younger than Suárez, both made their debuts in the Premier League in 2011.

As a rule, though, soccer’s journey over the last 10 years has been away from what might be termed focal point forwards. The tendency, instead, has been to engineer more fluid, more dynamic attacking lines, built around players who can drift and roam and transform, depending on the situation: a generation encapsulated by generalists like Mané and Neymar and Raheem Sterling, rather than specialists.

There is, most likely, no single explanation for why that might be. It may partly be philosophical: Guardiola, in particular, pioneered an approach in which a fixed No. 9 was optional and an aerial approach was deemed unsophisticated, while the German school that produced Klopp prioritized a player’s dynamism in the press. The rest of the sport followed suit.

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But the drift away from target men may have its roots, too, in the race to industrialize talent production over much the same time period. Soccer’s elite academies respond, in part, to what is being asked of them: If first-team coaches do not have much need for strikers, their counterparts in youth systems will not provide them.

They will, instead, pour their energies into finding the types of players — ball-playing midfielders, inverted wingers, creative fullbacks — that the professional game now cherishes above all others.

That pattern holds not only in Europe. Presciently, Arsène Wenger declared the better part of a decade ago that the old world, reliant on its academies, was no longer producing forwards. Only in South America, he felt, were the predatory instincts necessary to excel in the position still being honed on the street.

Now even that no longer holds. In Brazil, clubs respond to the demands of the European market. They craft the raw materials into something they feel can be sold. And, for some time, pure strikers have not sold all that well.


There is another relevant factor, though. Academies naturally place greater weight on the sorts of players they can produce. A well-honed youth setup, full of dedicated and talented coaches, can take gifted teenagers and turn them into neat, clever midfield players, or inventive inside forwards. What it cannot do is make them 6-foot-4.

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It is, then, difficult to be entirely certain what came first: Did Europe, in particular, stop producing strikers because soccer’s elite coaches felt they had moved beyond them? Or did soccer’s elite coaches move beyond strikers because none of the requisite level were emerging from the ever-more-prolific academies?

What Guardiola and Klopp have spotted, then, is a competitive edge. Only a handful of teams possess a high-quality powerhouse center-forward. Only one or two boast one that is not already well into the autumn of their careers. Perhaps that is the next step in the evolution of the related, but distinct, styles both coaches have crafted: the repurposing of old virtues to fit the new game.

That, in turn, will have a profound effect on soccer’s incessant pipeline. If the perception is that center forwards in the style of Haaland and Nuñez are back in fashion, then there will be value in producing them: if not the target-men of old, perhaps, then certainly a modern version, players able to fit into complex counter-pressing systems but also, in a very basic, very real way, extremely large. Size may matter once more. The No. 9 may yet have another day in the sun.

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The last few weeks have passed in a curious limbo for Mauricio Pochettino. He is still, officially, the coach of Paris St.-Germain, in the sense that he has not yet been fired. There has been no announcement, no expression of gratitude and regret, no statement offering him the club’s best wishes for the future, no mournful image of a drooping corner flag posted on social media.

At the same time, though, Pochettino is very much not the coach of P.S.G. If he has not been fired by the time you read this, then he will be fired very soon indeed. His tenure can be measured in days, maybe. Weeks, at the absolute outside. He knows it. The club knows it. The fans know it, and so do the players.

It is hard to say it is cruel, this Schrödinger status, because it is only soccer, and because there are plenty of prospective employers out there for a coach of Pochettino’s caliber, but it is a little undignified. It does not suggest a club that has a concrete plan of action, a crystal-clear foresight.

More damning still are the identities of the two coaches competing to replace him. Zinedine Zidane makes sense: not just a glossy name for a superficial club, but a coach with a proven ability to take a motley collection of superstars and turn them into a cogent force. He certainly has a more compelling case than the alternative, Christophe Galtier, who might have won the French title with Lille last year, but his specialism is in helping the overmatched punch above their weight.

But then does appointing Zidane as coach fit with the hiring of Luis Campos as P.S.G.’s de facto sporting director? Campos’s expertise is in spotting young talent, the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Bernardo Silva and Victor Osimhen. Those are not the kinds of players P.S.G. allows to flourish. They are not, particularly, the kind of player Zidane has worked with before.

Such is the modern P.S.G., though, a club that remains happy to throw as many ideas as possible against a wall and see what sticks. Whoever replaces Pochettino, it seems a fair bet that in a year, maybe two, they will find themselves in exactly the same position, waiting to be put out of their misery, doomed not by their lack of ability but by a club unable to commit to a direction, to choose where it wants to go, what it wants to be.

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By the time Gérard López relinquished his ownership of Lille, the club was both on its way to the French title and drowning in debt. Despite bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in player sales on a reasonably regular basis, two of his main lenders, JP Morgan Chase and the activist investment fund Elliott Management, were growing concerned that López would not be able to meet his loan obligations. Eventually, late in 2020, they forced his hand.

Six months later, López was back in French soccer. He had bought Bordeaux, a national champion only a little more than a decade previously, at a reduced price after its previous owner, an American investment firm, had placed it in administration. López had, it was said, saved the club from bankruptcy.

Last month, Bordeaux was relegated from Ligue 1 after finishing last in the table. Things, though, may still get worse: This week, citing the club’s precarious finances, French soccer’s licensing body demoted Bordeaux again. The team has said it will take up its right of appeal against a “brutal” decision, but as things stand, Bordeaux will begin next year in France’s third tier.

Still, at least it has not suffered the same fate as Royal Excelsior Mouscron, a team across the border in Belgium. In May, Mouscron was stripped of its license and relegated to Belgium’s fourth tier. Last week, saddled with debts of $4.5 million and unable to find a willing investor, it filed for bankruptcy. Mouscron is — was — owned by López.

Last year, the Portuguese side Boavista was banned from registering new players by FIFA. This year, Fola Esch, a team in Luxembourg, was implicated in a suspected money-laundering scheme involving Lotus, a now-defunct Formula 1 team. The common thread in all the stories, again, was their owner: López.

Doubtless, there are differences in each of these cases. The roots of the problems will vary from club to club. But one question hovers above all of them, a question that should be addressed not to López but to soccer’s authorities: Why has he been allowed to keep buying clubs? How could he be deemed a suitable owner for Bordeaux six months after being forced out Lille because of the club’s debts? Who, exactly, is looking after the game?

A couple of bugbears requiring attention in this week’s correspondence section. Bruce Tully, for example, is perhaps slightly unreasonably aggravated by “stutter-step penalty kicks.”

“They look ridiculous, and they’re not in the spirit of the game,” he wrote. “Penalty takers already have a tremendous advantage. They don’t need to resort to silly gimmicks that serve only to embarrass the goalkeeper. Neymar and Jorginho are perhaps the worst offenders.”

His suggestion — to limit the number of steps a taker is allowed in the run-up — is a sensible one. I have a deep-seated distrust of the stuttering run-up, based on the entirely woolly logic that you’re more likely to lose your rhythm. I suspect we will see it less frequently in the next couple of years, on the grounds that goalkeepers have now worked out, both with Neymar and Jorginho, that standing still is the best approach.

If anything, David Krajicek has identified an even more obscure irritant. “Is there a more overworked cliché in Premier League broadcasting than the worn-out trope of teams ‘asking questions’ of the opposition’s defense?” he wrote. “Are Brits contractually required to use it? Did they learn it in school?”

This is difficult for me to share, because “asking questions” is part of soccer’s lexicon to me. It encapsulates what analytical types might refer to as a game state, in which one team is enjoying the majority of the attacking possession but is not, necessarily, taking lots of shots or scoring lots of goals. (The stage after “asking questions” involves “peppering” or “laying siege to” the goal.) An alternative might be useful, though. I’ll start the bidding with “stress-testing.”


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