Nunez, Diaz and why Liverpool's 'South American soul' is here to stay

Luis Diaz Darwin Nunez Liverpool Community Shield 2022-23
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In an exclusive interview with GOAL, assistant manager Pep Lijnders discusses two game-changing signings

Liverpool's Latin connection is expanding quickly, and for Pep Lijnders that can only be a good thing, something to celebrate and enjoy. 

“That South American soul!” the Reds’ assistant manager says, smiling. “That’s what we want, and what we really, really like in a player.

“They have fire, they have hunger, they chase, and that makes them perfect for us.”

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He is talking, of course, about Luis Diaz and about Darwin Nunez, two big-money signings who have wasted no time at all in making a big impact at Anfield.

“Top, top players,” Lijnders tells GOAL, his eyes widening. “The best player of Porto and the best player of Benfica, and now they are both ours!”

His excitement is understandable, and his affection for Diaz, in particular, is laid bare in his new book, ‘Intensity’, which was released last week and which provides a compelling, first-hand account of Liverpool’s remarkable 2021-22 campaign.

“My feeling was that we needed the boy like water in the desert,” Lijnders writes, and his hunch would prove correct.

After arriving from Porto in a £50million ($61m) deal at the end of January, Diaz swiftly established himself as one of Liverpool’s key players; the “game-changer” Jurgen Klopp had spoken of during the club’s regular scouting and recruitment meetings.

“We never had any doubts,” Lijnders says now, more than six months on. “The only thing was that we really wanted him in January. I really felt that it was make-or-break.

“At one point it looked like we would have to wait until the summer, but then it changed, and we were very happy about that.

“It is a big credit to our sporting director [Julian Ward] and to our owners. This is a good period for Liverpool, because the alignment is there. We make decisions together, and we were all very enthusiastic about Luis.”

Diaz’s impact was immediate. If he was impressive at Porto, he has been simply electric on Merseyside, a bundle of energy, skill and constant threat from the left flank.

Lijnders has loved what he’s seen, comparing the Colombian’s “clean, technical style” to that of Hristo Stoichkov or Michael Laudrup. He never, he says, imagined any player could fit into Liverpool’s way of playing so quickly and so easily.

“The team needed him,” he adds. “It needed that style, stealing balls from centre-halves, chasing to the goalkeeper, receiving the ball under massive pressure but finding a way out to shoot. 

“We needed that extra energy in the final third, both defensively and offensively, and that’s what he gave us from day one. That was why I called it ‘water in the desert’, and why we pushed for him.”

Lijnders is equally enthusiastic about Nunez, whose early weeks in England suggest he could be every bit as exciting a signing. 

Liverpool, as they did with Diaz, got a close look at the Uruguayan when playing against him in the Champions League last season, and moved quickly once it became apparent that Sadio Mane wanted to leave for Bayern Munich. The deal could end up costing the Reds a club-record £85m ($104m).

“We followed Darwin for a long time,” Lijnders says. “Our scouting team followed him, made reports, compiled videos and kept him in their sights.

“Then there is a moment when you’re sitting in a recruitment meeting with Jurgen, Julian and Mike [Gordon] and it’s like ‘OK, let’s go!”

Nunez, at 23, represents Liverpool’s future and – pardon the pun – another step in the team’s evolution under Klopp.

With his physicality, athleticism and his ability to constantly get into goalscoring positions, he is already emerging as a firm favourite with Reds supporters.

“He’s a centre-forward that likes to drift,” Lijnders says. “He’s not a fixed No.9, and that was something we think can be good to open up spaces for others as well, which is something we think we can improve.

“Is it a gamble? Maybe, but the most important thing for the player is that he feels from the players and the staff that football isn’t a perfect game.

"We deal with moments where things don’t work out well, and that we don’t lose confidence and trust in the player. We don’t judge players on one game or one moment, never.”

Lijnders nods when it is suggested that Nunez already has his new fans onside.

His performance against Manchester City in the Community Shield was followed by an impressive Premier League debut off the bench at Fulham last weekend, and he will almost certainly make his first competitive start against Crystal Palace at Anfield on Monday night.

“The best form of doping is confidence, as I always say!” Lijnders grins. “You obviously want to create momentum, and momentum comes with confidence, and from success. 

“But success comes from working really hard, and Darwin is a beast working in training. He’s special, and it’s really cool that he’s with us.”

If all goes to plan, then he and Diaz should be big players at Anfield for years, key figures in Klopp’s next great team.

“They are already great players,” Lijnders says. “But the reason we like our style of play is because it forces development. The more you play with us, the better you become, because you don’t have a choice.

“We need that. Our players have to become better. We should never settle for what we are now, we should settle for the Liverpool we want to be tomorrow.

"That’s why we all work so hard in training, both as a team and as individuals. And look, if James Milner can become better, then Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez certainly can.

"How exciting is that?!”

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