Friday, August 5, 2022

The Summer of Change for Rivals brings unpredictability to the new season

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At Manchester City’s training ground, many players and coaches have noticed something between Erling Haaland and Pep Guardiola that makes them laugh. The coach generally addresses most players by their first names, but that’s not the case with the new megastar. Guardiola calls him almost schoolmasterly “Haaland”. The tone is not entirely different from Sir Alex Ferguson berating Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs for throwing a party and addressing them by their squad numbers. “And you, five.”

While the interactions have elicited smiles from teammates, they reflect a serious point. Guardiola sees himself in an educational role here, more so than many other players. He doesn’t see Haaland as a finished article yet, which is one of the reasons why the Norwegian himself has spoken to the media – in that deliberately blunt style – about how he needs to improve.

Guardiola currently feels Haaland isn’t pushing enough and wants to work with him on that. He wants to turn the 22-year-old into a bundle of energy. It may not be as deep a process as it is with previous players, however, as it’s not the usual case where a signing just fits into City’s existing attack. Instead, the attack is redesigned for Haaland, with Julian Alvarez adding further unpredictability. Guardiola has sold Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus but has remained open to the move to others, in an overhaul he’s wanted for at least two years. Given that most team cycles last only three or four seasons before the chemistry starts to fade, it’s a necessity — but also an opening.

The certainties of City’s attack from the last five seasons are gone, replaced with something new.

The twist is that Liverpool chose the exact same moment for a similar move.

Numerically, Jürgen Klopp’s changes are not that extensive, but emotionally. The famous front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah has finally been broken up. The Brazilian had been in and out of the team before, but the actual departure of one of the trio marks a significant psychological shift. It’s the end of something and the beginning of something new.

It also marks a significant change from the status quo of the last decade and could be the deciding factor for the season after the impact of the Winter World Cup.

The two are almost connected. In the same season, the Premier League experiences its biggest disruption of all time. The duopoly, who have made their biggest point gains yet, are seeing their biggest changes, with their two biggest stars – Haaland and Salah – set to miss the tournament.

The question would normally be whether Liverpool can consistently find that lead to bridge the one-point gap over City they’ve suffered in two of the last four seasons, except they’re no longer the same teams. Something deeper has changed.

Over the past five seasons, it was virtually guaranteed that the two clubs would drop 80 points while scoring buckets of goals. City would open teams with cuts. Liverpool would blow her away with whirlwind.

Now there are already indications that Guardiola wants to play differently. He wants to use Haaland’s long-distance acceleration to add a more direct dimension to City’s game, while also using the Norwegian’s movement to score the classic Guardiola goals.

That requires some adjustments, as the otherwise meaningless Community Shield reminds us. An enormous physical presence like Haaland not only has to get used to a demanding coach like Guardiola. He has to get used to a more demanding league. Of course, that should not doubt that he can do it. Haaland’s talent abounds. It still has to be requested.

The Bundesliga’s high pressing meant a lot of high lines that gave Haaland so much room to run. They accounted for around a quarter of his career goals.

He won’t get that kind of space in England, especially with City who generally play against piled low blocks. While it’s highly likely Haaland will score as many of the classic Guardiola cuts he similarly specializes in, he will work against different systems and in different spaces. It requires some honing.

How West Ham United have stacked up against City’s new attack will be telling, probably a lot more than the Community Shield.

However, that glorified friendly made it more necessary for Haaland to score on Sunday. It’s not the 1990s anymore, when Dennis Bergkamp took so much criticism for not scoring after a month. Headlines like ‘Hartlefool’, when the playmaker failed to score in a League Cup game, were bad enough then, but expectations are far more extreme now. Given the context of the modern game, top club forwards have to adapt almost immediately.

Because of that, Nunez’s goal against City was probably important for reasons other than the result. It freed him up a bit and made sure there wasn’t the same pressure.

Nunez’s ability is also evident, but so is the ability to be a flop. The Uruguayan has cost £85m and replaced club legend Benfica after just one truly productive season in Europe, and in a lower league than Germany.

Again, that doesn’t mean it will be a flop. It’s like the ingredients are there if anyone wants to look for them. The line-up is in place, as seen on social media after a few friendlies. That’s why Klopp has spoken of the new attack having to get used to each other, but it’s not just protection. It’s the reality.

The old Liverpool front three had a much bigger bond than just understanding each other. They almost played on their instincts.

Admittedly, the introduction of Luis Diaz and the center’s use of Mane have started to change things, but they felt more like tweaks than a new approach.

Signing Nunez changes the whole dynamic instead. He’s a very different breed of striker than what they had, something a lot closer to a traditional number nine.

Its mobility shouldn’t be overlooked, of course, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by its sheer presence.

Of course, this can also work differently. It could draw the attention of Salah, who has been double and treble tagged in recent months. The Egyptian was released.

It can also go into the biggest factor of all.

No matter how Haaland or Salah – or Diaz – start the season, they will then have five weeks without any real games while most of their peers go through the intensity of the World Cup. This allows them to recharge and really work on their game.

They could be at a completely different level of form after the Premier League return and have a huge advantage over the rest of the league.

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