Interview

Shuffling the deck

The older generation have dominated the top scorer’s charts in recent years, but Erling Haaland and Darwin Núñez are leading the charge for young centre-forwards

WORDS Simon Hart | ILLUSTRATION Dan Evans

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!

When Haaland, then 20, finished as the Champions League’s top scorer in 2020/21 he hit nine of his ten goals from inside the penalty box. He is tall but he is blessed with quick feet, which bodes well for a City team who source a good share of their goals from crosses and cut-backs. Fjørtoft sees Haaland – with that genuine striker’s instinct – as the perfect player to finish off the many openings City produce on transitions.

“There are so many situations when they attack very quickly when the opposition are disorganised and they’re so good at playing people in.” On which note, City supporters should check out his strike against Sevilla at the Sánchez-Pizjuán in the round of 16 in 2021 when, in an explosion of pace and power, he surged from deep and scored after a one-two with Jadon Sancho. 

As for Núñez, Liverpool fans have already seen the damage that the Uruguayan can do with his goals for Benfica in both legs of last season’s quarter-final against the Reds. He was the powerful front-runner in a Benfica side whose biggest attacking threat came from swift transitions to attack en route to the last eight. Indeed of the eight quarter-final participants, Benfica averaged the quickest route to goal – 1.5 passes and 4.9 seconds – which suggests that, despite Sadio Mané’s departure, there is no risk of the Reds slowing down. And Núñez’s six strikes from an xG of 3.1 in his debut Champions League campaign augur well for the impact he can make in front of goal too.

It was a year ago that Belgium coach Roberto Martínez, in the Technical Report for the 2020/21 Champions League, reflected that in development football “everything is between the boxes, with possession exercises to build players who don’t make mistakes”. The consequence is that, in the senior game, “everyone wants to get on the ball, but how effective is it to have a player whose only thought, in the moment that the team regains possession, is to stretch the pitch?” 

Twelve months on, England’s two best teams have each hired specialists and hence you have Fjørtoft speaking enthusiastically of the “revival of the number nine”, albeit with a caveat. “Sometimes the ‘big number nine’ is a bit British. I like the expression ‘they play with a number nine’ as in 2022 it’s much more – a link-up player, a player who presses from the front. I am very excited.” 

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Shuffling the deck
Interview

Shuffling the deck

The older generation have dominated the top scorer’s charts in recent years, but Erling Haaland and Darwin Núñez are leading the charge for young centre-forwards

WORDS Simon Hart | ILLUSTRATION Dan Evans

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!

When Haaland, then 20, finished as the Champions League’s top scorer in 2020/21 he hit nine of his ten goals from inside the penalty box. He is tall but he is blessed with quick feet, which bodes well for a City team who source a good share of their goals from crosses and cut-backs. Fjørtoft sees Haaland – with that genuine striker’s instinct – as the perfect player to finish off the many openings City produce on transitions.

“There are so many situations when they attack very quickly when the opposition are disorganised and they’re so good at playing people in.” On which note, City supporters should check out his strike against Sevilla at the Sánchez-Pizjuán in the round of 16 in 2021 when, in an explosion of pace and power, he surged from deep and scored after a one-two with Jadon Sancho. 

As for Núñez, Liverpool fans have already seen the damage that the Uruguayan can do with his goals for Benfica in both legs of last season’s quarter-final against the Reds. He was the powerful front-runner in a Benfica side whose biggest attacking threat came from swift transitions to attack en route to the last eight. Indeed of the eight quarter-final participants, Benfica averaged the quickest route to goal – 1.5 passes and 4.9 seconds – which suggests that, despite Sadio Mané’s departure, there is no risk of the Reds slowing down. And Núñez’s six strikes from an xG of 3.1 in his debut Champions League campaign augur well for the impact he can make in front of goal too.

It was a year ago that Belgium coach Roberto Martínez, in the Technical Report for the 2020/21 Champions League, reflected that in development football “everything is between the boxes, with possession exercises to build players who don’t make mistakes”. The consequence is that, in the senior game, “everyone wants to get on the ball, but how effective is it to have a player whose only thought, in the moment that the team regains possession, is to stretch the pitch?” 

Twelve months on, England’s two best teams have each hired specialists and hence you have Fjørtoft speaking enthusiastically of the “revival of the number nine”, albeit with a caveat. “Sometimes the ‘big number nine’ is a bit British. I like the expression ‘they play with a number nine’ as in 2022 it’s much more – a link-up player, a player who presses from the front. I am very excited.” 

Let’s start with a statistic: for six of the past seven seasons, the leading marksman in the Champions League has been over the age of 30. The 2021/22 season was no different with Karim Benzema, at 34, producing the best scoring figures of his career with 44 goals for Real Madrid – including 15 in 12 matches in the Champions League.

In joining the ranks of other thirty-somethings to have taken top-scorer honours recently – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – Benzema displayed not just exemplary scoring instincts but other qualities to leave admirers of centre-forward play purring. There was his outstanding link-up play as he provided his team with a focal point. Additionally, as is the way with the modern No9, he would drift into wide areas then come in from there to surprise central defenders.

Another man in his mid-thirties, Lewandowski, finished 2021/22 as the Champions League’s second-top scorer and, with his move to Barcelona, will now be in direct competition with Benzema in the Liga. As for Europe, both men can expect increased competition from two young centre-forwards. The club-record transfers of Erling Haaland, 22, to Manchester City and Darwin Núñez, 23, to Liverpool, indicate the premium price for elite front men: in the latter’s case, a reported £64m initial fee potentially rising to £85.5m. They also whet the appetite about the potential effect each player can have on his new side. 

With Haaland, the presence of the Norwegian in a team whose coach, Pep Guardiola, helped establish the term ‘false nine’ in the football lexicon will be intriguing to see. For those wondering how he will fit into Guardiola’s team, the message from Jan Åage Fjørtoft – former Norway striker-turned-Champions League broadcaster with Servus TV – is that “Haaland is much more than a big number nine”.

He explains: “I see a player who is 22 and still developing. In the two years in Dortmund he was always developing. Under [Edin] Terzić, for example, he was much more a link-up player.” Citing how much Haaland celebrates his team-mates’ goals, Fjørtoft goes on: “You’d be surprised how many goals he was involved in. He is a team player and very adaptable.” 

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

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