Anfield will get its first chance to hail a new hero tonight as, after a goalscoring cameo on his Premier League debut at Fulham last weekend, Darwin Nunez prepares to make his home bow for Liverpool.
The Uruguayan is likely to start against Crystal Palace this evening, and it is fair to say that, a little over a month into his Reds career, he’s already made quite an impression on Merseyside.
“He’s a beast!” assistant manager Pep Lijnders told GOAL recently, and Jurgen Klopp has been similarly impressed by the way the 23-year-old has settled in following his big-money move from Benfica.
When you commit such eye-watering sums on a player – Liverpool paid an initial £64 million ($77m) for Nunez, and with add-ons the fee could reach a club-record £85m ($103m) – you expect swift returns, and Nunez’s start has certainly been encouraging in that regard.
After emerging from the bench to score against Manchester City in the Community Shield, he repeated the trick at Fulham in his first league appearance, throwing in an assist for Mohamed Salah for good measure.
“He feels at home,” Klopp said on Friday, and he has been particularly pleased with the “cool partnership” Nunez and Salah have struck up. “It’s two players who are desperate to score,” he added, “which is very helpful.”
Like Salah, Nunez has worked hard for this opportunity, though his rise to prominence has not surprised those who worked with the striker during his formative years.
“Hard work brings good results, and Darwin is a good example of that,” Pedro Emanuel, who coached Nunez at Almeria, tells GOAL.
“He has a special formula, if I can say it like this, of skills, mentality, willingness to listen and belief in his own abilities, which means he can become one of the best players around.”
Nunez had only just turned 20 when he moved to Almeria, then playing in Spain’s second tier. The fee they paid – around £5m ($6m) – was a big one for a player who had caught the eye playing for Uruguay’s youth teams, but who had managed only four goals in 22 appearances with Penarol in his homeland.
“We didn’t buy Darwin because of his goals,” Emanuel explains. “We bought him for his skills, and his potential to do well in our team.
“We had scouted South America extensively, and there were three names on our shortlist. Darwin was the one who had the best skills for what we were looking for in a striker. It was his pace, his agility and his movement that made him our choice.
“It was an expensive fee for a second division club, but we knew if we were going to invest, it had to be in young and quality players like him.”
Almeria’s gamble paid off. Nunez spent just over a year in Andalusia but he made a big impact, scoring 16 goals and earning himself a move to Benfica.
“I got a very good impression the first time I met him,” says Emanuel, who was sacked as manager midway through the campaign, and now coaches Al-Khaleej in Saudi Arabia.
“I remember being surprised by how humble he was. He was just desperate to come to Europe and play, and his attitude on the training pitch meant he immediately connected with his team-mates.
"He always wanted more, from himself and from his team-mates. If he missed a chance or made a bad pass, he was always unhappy. He made a big impression on everyone.”
Nunez took a little while to get into Almeria’s team – “he got a muscle injury playing for Uruguay shortly after arriving,” remembers Emanuel – but once he did, he never looked back.
“He was young, but he always made an impact, and he improved a lot, especially in terms of his physical conditioning and his last pass. He became stronger and quicker very noticeably.”
Almeria, as Emanuel had predicted, earned themselves a tidy profit when Nunez joined Benfica for £20m ($25m) in 2020, and his progress continued apace at Estadio da Luz.
“He became one of the best strikers in Europe,” Emanuel says. “He grew a lot physically and in his conditioning. You see now he can handle playing every three days.
“He improved a lot in his small movements around the box, inside the box in small spaces and with pressure. He can release himself and create space to shoot at goal.
“His connection, reading the game, is a lot better. He knows when to touch and move and use his skills, when he needs to receive long diagonals and get his team up to the final third, and when to come short to support and keep the ball for the team.
“What makes him so dangerous is that he always wants to play forward. He never stops working and he is so competitive.
“Mentally, he has developed. The weakness I saw when he arrived was that if he missed a chance, he would worry, and it would take him some time to move on.
"We worked on that, and you see the difference in the last two or three years. He has more personality now, as you saw when he came to Liverpool.
Silencing the haters with four goals 🤫 pic.twitter.com/z7Xjpss3pF— GOAL (@goal) July 21, 2022
"He missed a few chances and the pressure came, but what happened? He scored four goals against Leipzig. He carried on, kept believing and working hard, and the rewards came.”
Jorge Jesus, who coached Nunez in his first season at Benfica, is on record as saying he will be “world class”, and Emanuel believes he has joined the ideal club if he wants to reach that status.
“At Liverpool, I think he will get better and better,” he says. “I believe that when a club like this pays this amount of money, it’s because they think he can make the difference.
“With the coach, Jurgen Klopp, he will improve a lot, and he is joining a club that has stability, which can give time to its players to adapt, to know the team and can settle in.
“Liverpool obviously has other great strikers, which can only help him, and Darwin can also play from outside to inside, not only as a No.9 or with two strikers.
“But with his qualities, and particularly his mentality, I don’t have any doubts. He’s a father now, he has stability in his life, and he is ready to take the next step in his career.
"It’s a challenge for him, but one he is able to succeed in. He won’t let Liverpool down. He never gives up.”