Darwin Nunez: Liverpool transfer flop, or a £64m work in progress?
How to describe Darwin Nunez’s first season as a Liverpool player, then? Perhaps 'mixed' would be the best way, although plenty outside of Anfield would opt for something a little less kind.
Certainly, the Uruguayan has had his moments on Merseyside. With 15 goals in all competitions, including strikes against Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle, Napoli and Real Madrid, Nunez has undoubtedly shown promise. He has certainly done enough to earn the love and support of the Reds fans, who chant his name enthusiastically each week, willing him to succeed.
Whether he will do so, however, is another matter, and though you’d be a fool to write off the 23-year-old, or indeed any player, after just 11 months at a new club in a new country, it is fair to say that, as a Liverpool player, the jury is still very much out on Nunez.
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Flaws to iron out
There was much excitement among supporters when Liverpool brought Nunez to Anfield last summer, and no wonder. At Benfica, he had terrorised Jurgen Klopp’s side, scoring in both legs of their Champions League quarter-final and, in the away leg, delivering a performance so impressive that Klopp “fell in love” with the player, urging sporting director Julian Ward to make him the club’s No.1 summer target.
Liverpool paid big to get him, an initial £64 million ($81m) which will rise to £85m ($107m) if all performance-related add-ons are met. If so, Nunez would then be the most expensive player in the club’s history.
Without wishing to be cruel, he hasn’t looked like that so far. He has looked, rather, like the archetypal 'work in progress'; a player with potential for sure, but one with plenty of flaws to iron out, either technically, physically or in terms of his game understanding.
At the moment, he misses too many chances - a big one squandered against Brentford on Saturday had both him and his manager grimacing - and his hold-up and link-up play could best be described as 'hit and miss'. There is aggression, for sure, but he needs to tidy up if he's to become a top-level Premier League and Champions League centre-forward.
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Klopp, in fairness, would agree with those sentiments, and it has been telling recently that Nunez has been on the bench for six of Liverpool’s last nine games, as the Reds have belatedly begun to put some results together.
"The ticket into this team must be, and will definitely be again, counter-pressing,” Klopp said before the win over Nottingham Forest last month. “That’s how everything started. I wouldn’t say we lost it a little bit out of eyesight, but we have had so many games from us where I didn’t like that. That’s a pretty strict thing.”
Most read that as backing for players such as Diogo Jota and Curtis Jones, who are enjoying good runs in the side, but also as a warning to the likes of Nunez, whose work-rate generally is strong, but whose understanding of pressing triggers and positioning against the ball needs work.
Klopp described Nunez as being “like a racehorse” after the win over Fulham last week, in which the Uruguayan started. The striker, he said, had been too keen and too early in chasing down defenders. The result was that Liverpool, as they have been so often this season, were too open and too easy to play through.
With Roberto Firmino, the king of the counter-press, entering the final weeks of his Anfield career, Liverpool need somebody who can step into the Brazilian’s shoes and become that No.9 who leads from the front. The Klopp striker, if you like.
So far, both Jota and Cody Gakpo, the January signing from PSV Eindhoven, look better suited to that role than Nunez has.
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The language barrier
During the recent 4-3 win over Tottenham, there was a moment where Nunez was about to enter the field as a substitute and Thiago Alcantara, missing the game through injury, made his way from behind the Liverpool bench to talk to him.
Klopp’s reaction to that exchange, a look of sheer bemusement, was widely shared across social media, and perhaps speaks to another of his concerns over Nunez; namely, his inability to speak or understand English well.
“We’re working on that massively,” Klopp said last month. Nunez, it is understood, has been taking extra lessons in order to get up to speed, but it is fair to say that he is some way behind, for example, Luis Diaz in terms of breaking down the language barrier.
Of course, speaking English alone won’t change everything, and Liverpool have plenty of Spanish speakers in their dressing room if required, but Klopp clearly has had issues getting his point across this season. “Learning English will help him massively,” he said of Nunez. By the time the squad reports for pre-season in July, he will expect significant progress on that front.
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A victim of a struggling team
What shouldn’t be ignored, and what cannot be overstated, is that Nunez has hardly had the best environment in which to flourish this season. Had he arrived the previous summer, or even in January as Diaz did, he would have joined a winning team, one perfectly-tuned and completely clear in its methods. There is every chance that, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah beside him, he’d have shone from the off.
But Liverpool this season have not been the Liverpool of last season. Mane has gone, yes, but the whole structure of the team has been different.
Nunez, at times, has looked like the right player in the wrong team. His ability to run in behind was one of the big reasons he was signed, but the Reds have been unable, for much of the campaign, to play in a way which allows them to utilise that. The breakdown of the press, the lack of legs in midfield, persistent injuries and the struggle of key players to maintain their usual high standards forced Klopp to return to basics, focusing on shape and pressing and positioning in a bid to bash some form back into his team.
It is only recently, with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s switch to a hybrid full-back/midfield role, that we have seen signs of what the next stage of Liverpool’s evolution may look like. And given the England man’s eye for a killer pass in behind, that could be good news for Nunez above anyone else.
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The good news for Liverpool, in a way, is that all their eggs are not in the same basket. They’d obviously love Nunez to become a star at Anfield, and they will expect him to improve given the money paid for him, but they are certainly not short of alternative forward options.
Gakpo, quietly, has been pretty impressive since joining in January, combining a silky touch with powerful running from deep and an obvious game intelligence, with or without the ball. “A really smart boy,” Klopp said, and it is fair to suggest that the Dutchman would be Liverpool’s starting centre-forward were they to play a cup final this weekend.
Jota, too, has enjoyed a return to form in recent weeks, scoring five times in his last six appearances after a year without a goal. The Portugal international is not the cleanest footballer, technically, but Klopp loves his work-rate and instincts around the penalty area. A full pre-season may do Jota the world of good.
Salah, of course, continues to deliver. He’s a certainty to start on the right, and if Diaz can recapture the form he showed prior to his knee injury then he will be hard to shift from the opposite flank. The Colombian, encouragingly, has looked pretty sharp since his return to action.
Crucially, Klopp has competition for places, and flexibility in his five attacking options too. All can play either wide or down the middle, and all offer different attributes when they do so. Need a connector in the middle? Play Gakpo. Need someone to isolate a full-back 1v1? Diaz is your man. Playing against a high defensive line? Nunez time. And if whatever you start with isn’t working, you should have at least two excellent options off the bench to change things.
Lessons from Benfica and a long-term project
Given Klopp’s record in developing elite forward players - think Salah, Mane, Firmino, Jota, Diaz, Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Marco Reus - it would be brave to suggest he may not be able to do something similar with Nunez. “This is a long-term product,” he said recently, and given the player does not turn 24 until June, there is plenty of time for Liverpool to harness his talents.
And those worrying about his suitability may glean encouragement from his time at Benfica, where he scored only six league goals in his first season before exploding with 26 in 28 games the following year.
Looking at his numbers at Liverpool this season, you’d have to say the potential is there. Nunez averages more shots per 90 minutes (4.35) than any player in the Premier League; only Erling Haaland received more ‘big chances’ per 90; and only Gabriel Jesus has more touches in the opposition box per 90. Nunez’s expected goals (xG) per 90 is the fifth-highest in the league.
Time, then, to turn those impressive numbers into something more tangible. He and Liverpool still have plenty of work to do, in that regard.