Striking contrast: Comparing Darwin Nunez and Erling Haaland this season

With Liverpool sitting just a point clear of City at the top of the Premier League table, Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash at Anfield guaranteed to be a thrilling encounter.

This highly anticipated match also showcases the clash of two contrasting styles of forwards leading the line for both teams.

Having propelled Manchester City to a treble last season, Erling Haaland continues to dominate the Premier League goal-scoring charts this term. Meanwhile, Darwin Nunez has been in exceptional form, netting eight goals and providing four assists in 12 games since the turn of the year - including a brace against Sparta Prague on Thursday.

Both strikers employ different methods to contribute to their team, and have proven pivotal in their respective clubs' success this season.

Let's take a closer look at the similarities and differences between the two forwards.

Haaland not as involved as Nunez in the overall play

The primary job of a striker is to score goals, and there are few better at this than Haaland. But the 23-year-old is not often involved in other areas of the pitch, as manager Pep Guardiola sets up his side so the Norwegian can position himself around the box and focus on doing what he does best.  

Most strikers do not have that luxury.

In contrast, Nunez will chase over hit passes, press opponents and take shots from impossible angles. He is willing to do anything to help his team - sometimes one too many things for his own good. 

Darwin Nunez

Football - Football League Cup - Quarter-Final - Liverpool FC v West Ham United FC LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 20, 2023: Liverpool s Darwin Nunez during the Football League Cup Quarter-Final match between Liverpool FC and West Ham United FC at Anfield. Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda

When Liverpool were missing creative players such as Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dominik Szoboszlai, it was the 24-year-old who stepped up.

His seven assists in the league this campaign, comes out to 0.42 assists per 90, putting him in the top 1% of strikers in the English top flight. This creative record is a consequence of  being much more involved in the final third than Haaland, and creating 1.63 chances per 90.

The Liverpool number 9 also registers more successful take-ons and progressive carries per game. This difference in offensive contribution becomes evident when comparing Nunez’s 0.72 goal-creating actions to Haaland’s 0.44 per 90.

Defensively too, Nunez presses from the front with 0.48 tackles in the attacking third, and recovers 2.77 balls per 90 in comparison to Haaland’s figures of 0.05 and 1.27 respectively.

Ultimately, both players play crucial roles for their teams and contribute in their own unique way.

Nunez takes more shots, but Haaland gets better quality chances

Let’s delve deeper into what defines a good goal scorer. In essence, it is the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and this starts by taking shots and keeping them on target.

Nunez leads the way here with 5 shots per 90 of which 2.2 are on target, and Haaland closely follows taking 4.2 shots per 90 and getting 1.9 of those on target.

CAPTION CORRECTIONDarwin Nunez of Liverpool celebrates third goal during the Europa League semifinal opening match: Sparta vs Liverpool in Prague, Czech Republic, March 7, 2024. PhotoP2024030708887

But it isn't just about getting shots on target. With more advanced stats such as Expected Goals (xG), we can now measure the quality of goal scoring chances.

Haaland’s xG per 90 figure of 1.02 is more than any other player in the big 5 European leagues this season, and highlights his incredible ability to consistently get into excellent goal scoring positions. In comparison, Nunez’s 0.79 ranks second amongst strikers in the Premier League, but is some way short of the City man.

However, the performance of strikers is also influenced by the quality of chances their team creates for them. Looking at the average quality of these goal-scoring opportunities provides some interesting insight.

With a non-penalty xG per shot (NPxG/shot) value of 0.21, Haaland benefits from operating in a setup tailored to his strengths, where he often gets on the end of high-quality chances created by his team. His accumulation of a high xG figure or breaking scoring records should not be surprising.

Nunez’s NPxG/shot figure of 0.15 shows that he needs to do a lot more work to score his goals. Even the likes of Dominic Calvert Lewin or Dominic Solanke get better quality chances in comparison. 

This explains why you see Nunez often creating opportunities for himself by tirelessly running the channels, taking on opponents, and attempting shots from distance.

Both miss many chances, but Nunez the better finisher this season

Interestingly, Haaland (-2.8 goals) and Nunez (-3 goals) have underperformed their xG this season. This means that they should have scored almost 3 more goals each based on the quality of chances they got.

Both players also lead the division for big chances missed, with 26 and 21 respectively. 

Rival fans often label Nunez as an unrefined finisher due to the chances he misses, but it's worth noting that even the best strikers in the world have off days in front of goal. This was evident last season when Haaland missed six more big chances than any other player, yet still managed to break the Premier League single-season record with 36 goals.

What seems to set the top strikers apart is their ability to regularly get on the end of goal scoring opportunities, and having the single mindedness to keep doing this despite occasional misses. Haaland is amongst the very best at this, but Nunez is right up there too.

While xG looks at the ability of a player to get into goal scoring positions, it does not tell us much about a player’s finishing. Often a bad finish leads to a scrappy goal, or a great finish gets no credit because of an outstanding save.

Expected goals on target (xGOT) is a post-shot variation of xG that assesses the quality of shots on target based on its end location. A higher xGOT value compared to the xG suggests a better finishing ability.

Nunez’s xGOT of 14.1 compared to his xG of 13.1 shows that he has added 1 goal based on his finishing this season. Conversely, Haaland has a slightly lower xGOT of 18 compared to his xG of 20.8.

In this case, it is the Uruguayan who demonstrates the ability to execute better quality shots than Haaland.

With margins expected to be very narrow this weekend, such nuances could potentially tilt the tie in Liverpool’s favour.

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