Is the Premier League witnessing the tactical reemergence of the traditional No 9?
After a number of years in which teams have opted for more fluid forward lines, influenced greatly by the early to mid-2010s obsession with the false nine, there have been signs this summer that teams are ready to revert to type.
Football is not a stagnant game and it was always likely that the traditional centre forward would return to elite football in some form, and signs – at least from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City – suggest that that will be the case in the Premier League this season.
Harry Kane is likely to challenge at the top of the scoring charts once again this campaign
GOLDEN BOOT ODDS
Erling Haaland: 13/5
Mohamed Salah: 9/2
Harry Kane: 5/1
Gabriel Jesus: 11/1
Heung-min Son: 13/1
Darwin Nunez: 13/1
Cristiano Ronaldo: 17/1
Raheem Sterling: 22/1
Odds provided by Betfair
The league’s two foremost clubs, Liverpool and City, have both lost prominent forwards this summer and have decided to replace them with out-and-out centre forwards in Darwin Nunez and Erling Haaland, respectively.
Meanwhile, Arsenal have signed Gabriel Jesus from City and he looks set to be their figurehead this season centrally, if evidence from pre-season is anything to go by.
One of the first major tactical alterations Antonio Conte made at Tottenham last season was ensuring that Harry Kane played higher up the pitch, a move that seemingly aided Son Heung-min, also, who went on to share the golden boot with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
All of this points to the race for the Golden Boot being one of the most fiercely competitive in years, with Cristiano Ronaldo also likely to want to have a say should he decide to remain at Manchester United this season.
Outside chances, such as Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling and Diogo Jota should also not be discounted.
Having assessed all of the likely candidates, Sportsmail here runs you through the runners and riders for one of the many great subplots to the fast approaching top flight season.
Gabriel Jesus joined Arsenal from Man City to be their figurehead at the apex of the team
DARWIN NUNEZ (Liverpool)
The Uruguayan arrives on Merseyside off the back of his breakthrough season in which he scored 26 league goals in 28 appearances for Benfica last term, putting him well clear of the next most prolific player in the Liga Portugal.
Having been signed for a fee close to £85million, Liverpool will be expecting Nunez to hit the ground running and not only replace the goals lost through Sadio Mane’s departure, but also add to them.
The forward is likely to represent something of a change stylistically, with Jurgen Klopp’s team now having an obvious figurehead centrally to whom they can play the ball short or indeed long.
Nunez is capable in the air and standing at a lofty 6ft 1in, is likely to capitalise on the inviting balls swung in by Andy Robertson from the left and Trent Alexander-Arnold from the right.
Liverpool will be encouraged by what they saw in Darwin Nunez’s Community Shield cameo
There were times last season when Liverpool’s lack of a centre forward appeared to ensure they fell short in some games. Having reached three major cup finals, they failed to score in any of them. Nunez’s impact in the Community Shield, when he came on for the final 30 minutes and scored, is likely to encourage Liverpool supporters that they now have another quite distinct option this year.
His four goals in a little over 30 minutes against RB Leipzig last month also provided encouraging signs that he will gel with his team-mates. Each of those goals required a distinct type of finish.
His touch map from the game against City shows that all but two of his 11 touches in the game came down the middle third of the pitch. Encouraging signs for those who think Nunez will do what no player has done since Salah in winning the prize in their debut season at a club.
Could potentially be undone by team-mates Salah and Jota also contributing greatly to the team’s tally.
Golden Boot chances: 3/5
ERLING HAALAND (Manchester City)
The bookies’ favourite.
Haaland arrives in the Premier League amid an air of expectation that is unlikely to have been bestowed on any other arrival, past or present.
The Norwegian’s record in the Bundesliga speaks for itself: 61 goals in 66 games is a record only bettered by Robert Lewandowski in that time. He more than lived up to the promise he showed at RB Salzburg before leaving for Germany.
A lot has been said about his performance in the Community Shield and for good reason, the forward was not very good and he, and indeed City, will be expecting a lot more, starting this weekend away at West Ham.
Haaland looked nervous both passing to team-mates and in front of goal, failing to find his fellow attackers when the opportunities arose and missing two very presentable chances on a difficult afternoon for the centre forward at the King Power.
Like his counterpart Nunez, Haaland’s arrival at City will bring a change in style for the champions.
Erling Haaland is the bookies favourite to win the award – despite his so-so performance at the King Power Stadium on Saturday
Pep Guardiola has chosen to play for much of the past two seasons without a recognised No 9, with a number of players deputising in the false nine role during that time, including Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne and Sterling.
The pursuit of Kane did show last summer that the Catalan did want a centre forward but that they were waiting for the right one. Haaland is a very different mould of striker to Kane and that is reflected in something interesting Rodri said during pre-season.
‘We’ve been playing three years with kind of a false nine, which it seems brought success,’ he said.
‘I think we are going to change a little bit, but let’s see how.’
All of Haaland’s touches during the Community Shield came down the centre third of the pitch, with the forward rarely drifting into wide areas. His rather concerning lack of threat in that game is unlikely to become a theme this season.
Golden Boot chances: 4/5
SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham)
‘It’s incredible to have this award. I can’t believe it. I got really emotional. I dreamed of it as a child. Literally it’s my in hands. I can’t believe it,’ the South Korean said of winning the golden boot – alongside Salah – last season.
The South Korean Son Heung-min spoke of his pride at winning the award last season – he will hope to replicate his stunning form again
Those are not the words of a man who will not try his utmost to win it again this season.
The exclusion of Son from last season’s PFA Team of the Year, least the PFA Player of the Year nominee list, was shocking and the player will be looking to avenge that oversight this season.
The wide player thrived under Conte last term, showing himself once again to one of Tottenham’s foremost players and key to their late run to get into the Champions League.
A bit more is expected of Tottenham this season and any chance they might have of challenging Liverpool or City rests on Son – and Kane – finding the back of the net regularly.
A worry for Son might be that last season was by far and away his most prolific league campaign of his career to date, having never scored more than 17 over the course of a league season before.
His partnership with Kane and Conte’s insistence that the Englishman plays higher up the pitch could ensure that the England captain overcomes his South Korean teammate in the scoring stakes this year.
Golden Boot chances: 2/5
Son shared last season’s award with Mohamed Salah, with both finishing on 23 goals
HARRY KANE (Tottenham)
What let Kane down last season in his pursuit of his fourth Golden Boot was his start to the season. His four league goals before the turn of the year is unlikely to win anyone a Golden Boot. By that stage, Salah had 15 and Son seven.
Kane returned to pre-season at Tottenham’s training ground appearing as though he had piled on muscle this summer
Kane’s turnaround in fortunes after Conte took over, though, has him right back at the top of the bookies’ predictions for the golden boot race. Having won three of them already in his career, most recently only the season before last, it is impossible to discount Kane.
The Englishman has returned from Tottenham’s pre-season tour to South Korea looking more muscular a factor that could help him offset his traditionally slow start in August.
Having been encouraged enough by what he saw last season under Conte, and having looked a much more focused player in Tottenham’s successful pursuit of the fourth Champions League spot last term, Kane comes into the season a much more driven version of himself than the one that started 2021-22.
There has been no transfer saga following him around this summer, despite having not penned a new deal with Tottenham and as such Spurs fans can expect their talisman to hit the ground running.
Conte’s insistence that the forward should play higher up the pitch has not totally extinguished his desire to get into the ‘quarter-back role’ as he sees it, but it did ensure Kane found the back of the net more regularly in the second half of last season.
Under Nuno Espirito Santo, Kane averaged 4.3 touches per 90 minutes in the opposing team’s defensive sixth. Under Conte, that rose by over a touch a game to 5.4.
The England captain has committed to Tottenham having been linked with a move away
The Italian has a great record of winning league titles with strikers who score the majority of the team’s goals. Diego Costa scored 20 league goals in 2016-17 while Romelu Lukaku bagged 24 in Inter Milan’s 2020-21 Serie A triumph.
In a big season for Kane in which he will captain England at the World Cup for a second time, a feat not achieved by an Englishman since David Beckham in 2006, he should deliver on his second half of the season promise under Conte.
Penalties will also play a big part.
Golden Boot chances: 5/5
MOHAMED SALAH (Liverpool)
The Egyptian’s record since he arrived in the Premier League made Liverpool tying him down to a few more years at Anfield imperative.
At the back end of last season, with the contract saga appearing as though it had the potential gravitas to derail both club and player this coming campaign, Salah appeared to go off the boil a bit. But, as it is in football, the margins are fine. He was a superb Thibaut Courtois save away from scoring his second goal in a Champions League final.
Mo Salah cut a slightly disappointed figure after Liverpool were pipped to the league by Manchester City… but still claimed the Golden Boot
Having signed his new deal, much like Kane, Salah heads into the new season refreshed and prepared to hit the ground running. In each of Liverpool’s pre-season encounters he looked sharp and on the ball, most notably against Leipzig in Leipzig.
His performance in the Community Shield further backed that up, causing Joao Cancelo a torrid time down City’s left hand side. The penalty late on capped a superb display.
Salah has a tendency to start season’s quickly: he had 15 goals by the turn of the year last season. It can be expected that a similar fate will befall those unlucky enough to play Liverpool early on in the campaign as has been the case in the past five or so seasons.
No player has scored more Premier League goals since Salah’s arrival at the start of 2017-18
One concern for Salah might well be the arrival of Nunez who is likely to dominate the central areas the Egyptian likes to drift into in a way that Roberto Firmino, and latterly, Mane simply did not.
How Klopp appeases his talisman should Nunez be the one to grab the headlines by putting the ball in the net will be an interesting subplot this season. You expect Salah to not go quietly should play not go through him.
Like Kane, Salah takes penalties which will of course play to his advantage. Nunez, despite having been given the ball on one occasion during pre-season, perhaps to ensure he got off the mark for the club, will not be afforded spot kick duties.
No player has scored more goals in the Premier League than Salah since his arrival at the start of 2017-18. He is unlikely to be usurped in that particular statistic this season at least.
Golden Boot chances: 4/5
GABRIEL JESUS (Arsenal)
The Brazilian has got his wish. He has stepped out of the shadow of City in which game time at the apex of the team was a premium that he felt he all too irregularly was afforded.
Jesus, on the back of a hefty price tag for a player with only one year left on his deal, arrives at Arsenal with a reasonable amount of pressure on his shoulders. Simply put, the reason they didn’t reach the Champions League last season was because they didn’t possess a centre forward capable of getting them there.
Eddie Nketiah gave it a good go at the end of the season, but his performances away at Tottenham and Newcastle surely were the nails in the coffin of the idea that he was capable of leading the line for an entire campaign.
Gabriel Jesus will look to hit the ground running for Arsenal at Crystal Palace on Friday night
Having promised a lot at City, Jesus’s performances were quite often patchy. However, a famously selfless player, it is likely he often sacrificed himself and his own personal record in favour of the team under Guardiola.
Important goals late in the campaign against Liverpool, Watford and Leeds displayed his worth at the crucial moments. He also scored early on in City’s semi-final exit to Real Madrid in the Champions League.
After Jesus scored four against Watford, his first Premier League hat-trick, Guardiola extolled the virtues of his centre-forward, speaking about how selfless he was and how he could do a job at right-back if called upon.
Jesus scored a number of important goals for City both last term and the season before
‘In this world of football, if there’s one person, one player who deserves the best in life, it’s Gabriel,’ he said. ‘He fights for every single ball and helps the team all the time. One day I’ll have to ask him to play at right-back, and he’s going to give absolutely everything.
‘It’s not necessary for him to score four goals to know exactly how important [he is], and what he means to all of us.’
The last season Arsenal have signed Jesus for is to deputise for Takehiro Tomiyasu at right-back. Jesus will play every game through the middle when fit and such opportunities should provide him a chance to have a crack at winning the golden boot. Stiff competition might make it a tall order, this campaign at least.
Golden Boot chances: 2/5
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Manchester United)
Should the Portuguese remain at the club this summer, he will find himself at the upper echelons of the top scorer standings by the end of the season. For all the talk about how he impacts Manchester United’s style of play, the 37-year-old knows where the goal is.
His 18 goals in the Premier League last season ensured he finished eight clear of the next best performing United player (Bruno Fernandes).
The tumultuous nature of United’s campaign last season under both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick ensured it was a torrid campaign for all involved but Ronaldo emerged from it with some credit in front of goal.
Whether or not Erik ten Hag sees Ronaldo as infallible as those two coaches remains to be seen, however.
Should Cristiano Ronaldo remain at the club this summer he could have a decisive say in the destination of the golden boot
It would be an affront to also not consider what impact the circus of him trying to leave the club this summer might have on his early season performances. How motivated is he to play for United?
When Europe kicks back up again in September, will he once again have these moments of introspection asking himself what on earth he’s doing playing for a Europa League club?
Kane’s angling for a move away last term impacted him enormously in the first half of the season and it is hard not to see that same fate falling over Ronaldo.
Rio Ferdinand, one of the Portuguese’s former team-mates during his first spell at the club, on Tuesday said that they must sort out his future so as to avoid a ‘hangover’ heading into the campaign.
United, looking at an ambitious, long-term rebuild under manager Ten Hag, can ill afford passengers. As it stands, Ronaldo very much is one of them. But he was for large parts of last season, too, and still managed to finish in the top three.
Golden Boot chances: 1/5
Jamie Vardy: Could the Leicester centre forward produce something of a revival of his late career this season and spring a surprise? With Leicester having made no signings so far this summer, it appears as though it is going to rest on the shoulders of their existing stars to haul themselves out of last season’s rut and produce for Brendan Rodgers this term.
Raheem Sterling: Like Jesus, a player who has stepped out of the City mega-squad and into a side where he is guaranteed to start every week. Sterling’s record for City was extraordinary, scoring 78 goals in the league since 2017-18. Thomas Tuchel has had issues getting the best out of his forwards since arriving at Chelsea midway through the 2020-21 season. The Englishman will be key to any Chelsea success this season.
Diogo Jota: The Portuguese enjoyed a superb campaign for Liverpool last season and up until the emergence of Luis Diaz, appeared as though he might finish the season Liverpool’s most important player. His 15 goals almost helped Liverpool to the title while his six assists greatly aided those around him. Fresh off the back of a new deal, he will want to show Liverpool what they are paying for.
Jurgen Klopp (left) has said that Diogo Jota’s new contract is brilliant news for Liverpool
Raheem Sterling chose to join Chelsea after growing disillusioned with his lack of first team chances at City over the past two seasons
Jamie Vardy endured a difficult campaign last season but it is always difficult to write him off