LEICESTER, England — Erling Haaland will have better days in a Manchester City shirt, you can be certain of that, but his first taste of English football saw him resoundingly upstaged by Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez and City teammate Julian Alvarez as the FA Cup holders claimed a 3-1 Community Shield victory over last season’s Premier League champions at the King Power Stadium.
Few players in world football create quite as much noise as Haaland, the 22-year-old forward who moved to City from Borussia Dortmund in a €60 million transfer earlier this summer. The Norway international had his pick of every major club in Europe before agreeing to move to the Etihad and few expect him to do anything but score a truckload of goals on the way to winning trophies galore with Pep Guardiola’s team.
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But Haaland had a debut to forget against Liverpool. Not only did he fail to score, he barely touched the ball, missed an easy chance in stoppage time when hitting the crossbar from six yards and saw Nunez — Liverpool’s €75 million signing from Benfica — leave him firmly in the shade with a dazzling substitute performance which delivered a goal, an assist and an exciting showcase of the qualities he will bring to Jurgen Klopp’s team this season.
And then there was Alvarez, the 22-year-old signed from River Plate for €16 million, who gave an eye-catching City debut by scoring the equaliser, canceling out Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first-half opener, after replacing Riyad Mahrez early in the second-half. While Nunez was explosive, determined and clinical, Alvarez showed the ability to hold the ball, lay it off and take advantage of tight spaces before displaying a striker’s awareness when scoring from close range after goalkeeper Adrian had pushed away Phil Foden’s shot in 70 minutes.
Haaland will undoubtedly score goals for City. His record of him so far for Dortmund, FC Salzburg and Molde, has been so consistently good that he would be foolish to suggest he will do anything but continue his scoring ratio at the Etihad. But this was a day when he was up against one of the strongest teams in Europe, with defenders Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk one of the best partnerships anywhere in the game, so it was a tough baptism for Haaland. The space to run at defenders which he often enjoyed in the Bundesliga was denied him by Matip and Van Dijk, and any other red shirt that came within close distance. And when he can’t run into the final third with the goal facing him, Haaland is not quite the same threat.
Nunez looked much sharper, and much more able to receive the ball with his back to goal and move defenders around, but Haaland and City are clearly still learning how to work with each other. Mahrez failed to spot a clever Haaland run in the first-half, when the forward had peeled off his marker, while Kevin De Bruyne waved his arms in frustration at his new teammate when he strayed offside and made himself unavailable for a pass in the second half.
And while Nunez was prepared to run across the face of the 18-yard box, Haaland stayed within the tight confines of the central area of the pitch and it made him easier to stifle and perhaps explained why he only managed 14 touches in 90 minutes. On this evidence — admittedly, just 90 minutes — Haaland will offer less to City when he doesn’t have the ball than Nunez will give to Liverpool. Nunez simply looks a more rounded player, but it doesn’t mean he will score more goals and Guardiola insisted that Haaland will deliver in the months ahead.
“He didn’t score,” Guardiola said. “Another day he will score. He has an incredible quality on that and he will do it.
“He fought a lot, made the movements. It’s good for him to see the reality of new country, new league, but he was there. He is going to help us a lot — he had the chances, he was there.”
Opponents that aren’t as accomplished are likely to be blown away by Haaland if he is given the space to hurt them, but ultimately, he has been signed to make the difference in the tight games, against the likes of Liverpool and in the Champions League, so he has still to show he can make that vital step up. It is difficult to envisage Haaland failing to take his game to that level, but he and City have work to do to make it come together.
Liverpool appear to have less to do to make Nunez fill the gap created by Sadio Mane’s summer move to Bayern Munich. His header from him, from Mohamed Salah’s cross on 80 minutes, led to the Ruben Dias handball which, after a VAR review, resulted in a penalty from which Salah made it 2-1 to Liverpool. And Nunez than scored his goal with a diving header, four minutes into stoppage time, after Andy Robertson had teed him up in the six yard box.
“We all know they are a special species, strikers,” Klopp said. “They all need goals and goal involvements.” [Nunez] would have been fine without his goal because he created the penalty with his header and had a chance when the goalkeeper reacted brilliantly. “His goal for him was the icing on the cake, brilliant for him and it’s a really good sign after the time he has been with us.”
So in the battle of the new signings, Nunez won his first encounter with Haaland and helped Liverpool to their first Community Shield success since 2006. But this is a game that means little in the long term. How Nunez and Haaland do in the Premier League and Champions League is what will truly define the success of their big moves.