Darwin Nunez and Aleksandr Mitrovic underline revived value of the No 9

·5-min read
Darwin Nunez and Aleksandr Mitrovic underline revived value of the No 9

If the main focus from Fulham will be on Jurgen Klopp wondering how his team could be that bad, and that Marco Silva’s might finally have what it takes for the Premier League, the game was defined and decided by two players who could caution against any conclusions from the start of the season.

Darwin Nunez is still playing under the pressure to immediately adapt. Aleksandar Mitrovic still has to defy perceptions from his very first games in the Premier League.

Without falling into the same trap and declaring that both have immediately banished all doubts, the two strikers emphasised the restored value of their role this season – as so many more clubs go for modern No 9s – and just showed good players can still produce despite any noise.

Liverpool actually ended up greatly needing Nunez. He changed the game, by changing the gravitational centre of their team. Before the Uruguayan came on, there had actually been a flightiness to Liverpool. Roberto Firmino, another experienced head charged with starting the game, just didn’t have sufficient impact. There were two good moments from the Brazilian, but that was almost the problem. He was mostly drifting in that way that has proven dangerous in the past, but here felt insufficient.

Nunez, by contrast, started to dominate everything. He was far from perfect, of course. Some touches remained off. A few decisions were poor – not least that pass to Luis Diaz when he should have shot, a classic case of a player adapting to a new team. But none of it ever got to him. He persevered, in that muscular way, which also meant Fulham just had to keep on trying to subdue him. Nunez was attracting almost every ball, and that sometimes attracted up to three of Silva’s defenders.

The final equalising goal came from that. It also illustrated something else, which is the greater space he opened for Salah. Liverpool’s attack looked so much more angled and dangerous once Nunez went into the centre, allowing the Egyptian to wreak havoc on that side. His goal, the flicked first equaliser, also came from a similar persistence.

“In situations like that where we don’t find a way in front of goal you need this little bit extra,” Klopp said of Nunez. “This difference as well makes it difficult for opponents.”

Put bluntly, for a player of such force, everything fit together when Nunez came in. The team made sense. That is going to be all the more important for their first home match, next Monday at home to Crystal Palace, given the potential issues in midfield. They could be missing all of Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thiago Alcantara, the Spanish midfielder having pulled up in this game.

Klopp inevitably denied they would go into the market.

“I have said that we don’t need a midfielder because we have enough and we have actually enough. We are now punished for something that is not our responsibility. No one could imagine that Curtis gets the thing he gets but he’s a young boy and gets a stress reaction. Naby is ill and he will not be back definitely again next week. Oxlade happened early and Thiago, that’s not good. But a transfer must make sense now and in the long term. We have eight midfielders. It’s not that we lack midfielders. They are just getting injured. But this is not a good situation. I don’t like it all. For sure, we have to think how we react but not panic.”

Nunez’s equaliser combined imagination and persistence (AFP/Getty)
Nunez’s equaliser combined imagination and persistence (AFP/Getty)

Silva wasn’t panicking, but he was urging his club – once again – to go into the market. That has been one of the undercurrents of the summer at Craven Cottage, with tension growing between the manager and the hierarchy.

Silva will insist he’s shown he should be backed. There’s also the possibility of what Mitrovic might do with even more quality around him. He was superb on his own here. Fulham were obviously superb right across the team and across the pitch, and had so many excellent performers, but the specific nature of their gameplan still meant there were moments when Mitrovic was on his own in acres of space. He revelled in it, alternating between brilliantly holding up or so dangerously charging forward. The latter was the source of the penalty, as he outfoxed Virgil van Dijk in a moment few would have imagined, and it all complemented his more traditional game. There was some of that, too, as he powered in the first goal in vintage fashion.

There is something else to that, too, as Silva referenced. Mitrovic is about more than just goals and power.

“I know the quality Mitro has. I’m here to take the best from my players and we’re doing it from the last season with all of them. Of course, he has his own profile as a football player, we have to keep believing for him to take the best for him as well, but Mitro is not just goals.

“If someone thinks Mitro is just goals, forget [it]. The job he did this afternoon [was] for the team, his pressure, helping the midfielders, helping the back line and after, if you leave it for him, he’ll score.

“I have to congratulate him because the work without the ball that he did this afternoon was fantastic and he knows this from me.”

Mitrovic might also offer some gratitude to his manager, though. One reason that the perception grew that he couldn’t cut it in the Premier League was not that he wasn’t good enough, but really that Scott Parker played a system that just didn’t suit him. He isn’t built for that sort of game. Silva, by contrast, has nurtured a shape that is almost ideal for Mitrovic.

It might not keep Fulham up. The manager stressed he needs more players. Opening days can also be deceptive. Blackpool once thrashed Wigan Athletic 4-0 on the opening day of the 2010-11 season. It was only Wigan who managed to stay up. But this approach, which puts Mitrovic in this kind of role, certainly gives them a fighting chance.