Is the season for big, strong, young and skilful forwards upon us?
Dusan Vlahovic has settled down well enough for Juventus to plan their attack around the Serbian. As clubs get into pre-seasons, conversations will centre on how Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez bed in at Manchester City and Liverpool. And whether Gianluca Scamacca, Charles de Ketelaere and Hugo Ekitike will move to bigger clubs before the summer transfer window closes.
What unites these attacking players is their size and age. All are in their early 20s and at a little over six foot one Nunez is the smallest with Scamacca the biggest at six-five. “If you look at my body, if you look at my legs, you will see that I have changed a lot. I am completely different. I have become a real man,” Haaland (29 goals and 8 assists in 30 games last term for Borussia Dortmund) has told AS. “I have become faster. That is one of the most important things. I have gone from 86 kilos to 94, but it is not a beer belly, it is about gross muscle mass. I take great care of what I eat.” Haaland is also six foot four.
Barring Kylian Mbappe, there weren’t many young forwards in the game who had speed, strength, skill and were big. It may be premature to say that the era of attacking players being small, quick of feet and technically adept is over but these six could give Mbappe company over the next few years.
To be sure, not one of them is a traditional No 9 who will play off the shoulder of the last defender. Football has ways of surprising but in this age of pressing, it is difficult to see a team succeeding with a big, stationary centre-forward. All six are inventive, can involve players around them, have good shots, can carry the ball, beat defenders with pace, play with their back to the defender and score.
“When I played against Dusan, I noted how technically gifted and strong he was,” Matthijs de Ligt said before Juventus paid $76 million for another player Fiorentina wanted to keep but could not (you can go back to the time of Roberto Baggio or look at the more recent transfers of Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi).
Since joining in January, Vlahovic had nine goals and two assists in 21 Serie A games and one in two Champions League ties.
City and Liverpool will want their key purchases to fit in just as well. As was seen with Jack Grealish, City could use Haaland sparingly allowing the Norwegian to get used to their intricate playing style, one vastly different from the kind of transitions Borussia Dortmund make. City have relied on a false nine for most of the past two seasons; it fetched two successive league titles and so was persisted with even when Sergio Aguero was not injured. But while they have created numerous chances, City lacked a player who could be clinical in front of goal. Enter Haaland.
His presence could mean Kevin de Bruyne will have it easier finding someone in the box. It could also mean deliveries from full backs, Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Guendogan, even Ederson. And though you can never ignore that, there is a lot more to Haaland than being an intimidating presence in the penalty area. He has a good shot, can fool defenders by looking to run at them and then going around them and, like the other five, is good at link-up play.
Like Haaland, who has only seven headed goals in the 86 he scored at Dortmund, Nunez is not known for aerial proficiency. What he is good at is using the half-space on the left, like Alvaro Morata. Nunez could give Juergen Klopp a chance to also look at playing 4-2-3-1 more often. Liverpool have relied a lot on their full backs to provide the final ball. With Nunez, they also have the option of playing more centrally.
“If he stays healthy, he has a big career ahead of him,” Klopp said of Nunez (34 goals and 4 assists in 41 club games in 2021-22) after the Uruguayan impressed in both legs of the Liverpool-Benfica Champions League tie.
When Sassuolo boss Alessio Dionisi said he hoped to continue coaching Scamacca, he was being realistic. Arsenal, Newcastle and West Ham are interested in the player who got 16 league goals in 38 games last term; one less than Vlahovic who had the most among players under 23 in Serie A. “Scamacca scores all kinds of goals: headers, goals from distance, close-range finishes. He’s powerful and skillful,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini has said in ‘The Athletic’.
Like with Scamacca, there is interest in Belgium’s De Ketelaere (18 goals, 10 assists in 49 games for Brugge) and French Ekitike who had 11 goals and five assists in 27 games for Reims. While De Ketelaere has got AC Milan to notice his abilities to play on the right, numbers 10, 9 and 8, Ekitike is said to be on Bayern Munich’s radar should Robert Lewandowski leave.
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