After months of speculation, Darwin Núñez has finally joined Liverpool on a six-year deal, with the club reportedly paying a club-record fee of €100 million to acquire his services.
It has been phenomenal to bear witness to the conveyor belt of world-class goalscorers that Uruguay have churned out over the past 30 to 35 years. For a country with a population of just three and a half million—almost two million fewer than Scotland’s—the talent that Uruguay generates on a consistent basis is simply astounding.
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During the 90s, there was Rubén Sosa. A lesser known forward than the legends that would eventually follow him, sure, but Sosa was a fine, diminutive and agile striker who notched up more than 90 goals in the Serie A during the league’s golden years.
Following him out of Uruguay was Álvaro Recoba, a man with a strike so pure, it didn’t matter whether you played with or against him; you just enjoyed the whole spectacle. While the former Inter man was ridiculously talented, he was infuriatingly inconsistent at the same time.
The turn of the century saw the level go up as Diego Forlán took centre stage. While his Manchester United days were largely forgettable, his time in Spain was anything but, as he won two Pichichis and a Europa League with Atlético Madrid, becoming Uruguay’s first modern superstar.
And it was only after a few more years that Forlán was eclipsed by two of the best strikers of their generation in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez, both coming from the city of Salta on the Uruguayan-Argentinian border.
While the three strikers’ playing days never quite overlapped, especially during their peak years, since the big moves of both Cavani and Suárez to Napoli and Liverpool respectively came after Forlán had left European football, the trio still enjoyed great success with the Uruguay men’s national team. All three featured in the 2010 FIFA World Cup as Uruguay made it to the semi-final after a very long time, while a year down the line, they powered to their first Copa América title in sixteen years.
Now, why was it important to talk about these Uruguayan legends first? Because, all three of them have lobbied on behalf of Darwin Núñez, Liverpool’s latest acquisition.
Darwin Nuñez: The player
With Edinson Cavani set to leave Manchester United this summer, it was reported only months ago that the 35-year-old had told the United hierarchy to purchase his compatriot to replace him at Old Trafford, while former United striker Diego Forlán also expressed that a United move for Núñez would be good for both him and the club.
Luis Suárez’s lobbying, though, dates back all the way to his final days with Barcelona. In 2020, when Núñez was plying his trade at Almeria in Spain’s second tier, Suárez told the Barça officials to sign him up. “I told them, ‘pay attention to this one, he’s very good, he has very interesting things’,” he said. Barcelona reportedly did try to sign him, but lost out to Benfica while being at the peak of their financial crisis.
However, since moving to Portugal, Núñez has never looked back. He made 63 goal contributions in 85 appearances for Benfica across all competitions. During the 2021/22 season alone, the 22-year-old scored 34 goals in 41 games, including 6 goals in 10 Champions League appearances. Thus, when you look at Europe’s big five leagues and Portugal, only Robert Lewandowski (35), Kylian Mbappé (28), Karim Benzema (27) and Ciro Immobile (27) scored more goals than him in the league (26) last term, and it is this appetite for goals that put Europe’s biggest clubs on high alert before Liverpool sealed the deal.
Just like his compatriots Suárez and Cavani, Núñez has instincts of a deadly poacher, excellent on- and off-the-ball movement, and raw power. While some players struggle with a larger frame and raw power to maintain their technical ability as the extra weight becomes a burden, Núñez already has five full seasons of senior football with his current stature under his belt. Moreover, those who followed him closely over the past two seasons with Benfica know how refined his touch already is.
Having said that, this is the only side of Núñez’s game that lets him down compared to some of Europe’s elites. It is something he must work on, especially since he’s moving to a league where he’ll be playing in a more back-to-goal traditional way than sitting on the shoulders of the defenders and running in behind.
Though one needs to be a great link-up player to be a top striker for a top European team—something the 22-year-old will undoubtedly improve upon—he can for now make up for that area of weakness by doing what forwards do best: score goals.
With a goal every 76 minutes for Benfica in the league last term, Núñez leads all forwards (who have played at least 1,000 minutes of football) across Europe’s big five leagues and Portugal. It is his sharp movement and excellent positioning that gets him into great goal scoring positions. He scored more non-penalty goals per 90’ than any other player in Europe’s big five leagues and Portugal (1.00), while his 0.69 non-penalty xG per 90’ is the fifth-best in all of Europe.
Moreover, unlike the current crop of Liverpool forwards (Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino), who averaged more than 20 big chances missed individually last season, Núñez is a different gravy. Once he gets into scoring positions, his finishing is exceptional. Núñez’s non-penalty shot conversion rate stood at 27.2% last term — none of the 160+ players to have attempted more than 55 shots from non-penalty situations across Europe’s top five leagues and Portugal could match that. This resulted in the Uruguayan outscoring his expected goals index by seven, more than any other striker in Europe.
As his goal map shows below, Núñez is adept at finishing well with either foot and is more than capable in the air too.
Goal Map for Núñez during 21/22 season (source: TheAnalyst.com)
How Núñez will elevate Liverpool
When I first saw Darwin Núñez play back in October 2021, I was blown away by how a young 22-year-old could carry his team on his back so effortlessly. He’s a one-man attack who enables his team to be one of the most devastating counter-attacking units in the world single-handedly.
For instance, Liverpool dominated Benfica when they faced each other in the Quarter-finals of last season’s UEFA Champions League, but there were spells of chaos in each leg, when Núñez single-handedly got his team up the pitch, enabled them to sustain attacks and changed the whole flow of the game.
Liverpool’s talismanic centre-back Virgil van Dijk recently said that Núñez was one of the hardest forwards he had ever played against. Núñez also went toe-to-toe with a more agile and physical centre-back in Ibrahim Konaté and got the better of him.
But then, when you read pieces that talk about how Núñez doesn’t fit Klopp’s system, it makes me laugh at the analysis and reasoning.
Having analysed and scouted his play for nearly a year, I can conclude that Núñez is one of the more perfectly suited forwards to fill the void of Sadio Mané for Liverpool than any other forward in world football right now, and the fact that he is a one-man attack with elite physicality and mentality, despite being just 22 years old, means that Liverpool have done it once again in the transfer market with their excellent analytical department.
While Jürgen Klopp was late to identify Sadio Mané as a #9 for Liverpool, what Mané did playing in that role is arguably better than anything Firmino or Jota have shown playing there over the years. The notion that Liverpool needed an associative type of profile is absolutely correct, but a complete centre-forward offers that and more, and that’s Darwin Núñez. The 22-year-old will show to feet just like Mané, Jota or Firmino have done for Liverpool, and that creates space in behind the last line of defence. He’s a massive target in the middle of the pitch and regularly shows for the ball, so the idea that he doesn’t suit Liverpool as a #9 doesn’t hold true; he absolutely does.
Núñez is an athlete and is the epitome of a physical specimen. He can either turn on the ball himself and play the runner from deep or on the sides with a through ball, or lay the ball back to a central midfielder (free #8s), who would then play the incisive pass to the runner in behind, be it Salah, Jota or Luis Díaz.
With his height and physicality, Núñez regularly offers himself to receive a pass with his back to goal and is effective within these scenarios due to his sheer presence, which also aids in holding off defenders. Moreover, within these situations, he has the quality to fight off his man and use his technical qualities to bring others into play or create space for himself by peeling off his markers.
Núñez’s biggest strength lies in creating separation to contribute to decisive actions. For example, if the Uruguayan has his back to goal, he has the technical qualities to turn and create a yard of space with his close control dribbling and acceleration before carrying the ball up the pitch himself or passing it to a teammate. It is important to note that, instead of recycling possession or holding the ball for too long, Núñez regularly looks to pick the direct option.
While Núñez does sometimes look clunky or old-fashioned while carrying the ball, dribbling or attempting to play a pass, this is largely down to the fact that he’s a direct player who plays in the most congested area of the pitch. Therefore, there’ll always be turnovers. Sadio Mané was an elite winger and #9 for Liverpool, but was he always secure with his link-up play, combination play, or dribbling? No, he wasn’t, because he’s a direct player too, who likes to take high-risk actions.
Thus, although Núñez might look clunky, he can skin any defender in 1v1 situations and smash the ball into the top corner from outside the box. He also has the close control dribbling, excellent 1v1 ability, rapid turn of speed, and the elite ball-striking to go with it. Moreover, Núñez’s pressing and tracking back is off the charts, just like how Sadio Mané has performed for Liverpool on the left wing.
Hence, just like Mané, the Uruguayan can be equally as effective on the left of Klopp’s 4-3-3. This is one of the main reasons why Liverpool and Klopp have spent a club-record fee on him. Núñez’s mentality and direct playing style translates to his off-ball runs, which are incredibly intense given he’s lightning quick, built like a house of bricks, and is 6’2″ tall. Besides, Liverpool have a number of top crossers of the ball (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Mo Salah, Luis Díaz, Jordan Henderson and Thiago to name a few), who will pick out the 22-year-old with ease given his relentless running beyond the last line, irrespective of whether he’s deployed as a centre-forward or a left-winger. Núñez will score goals for fun at Liverpool.
All things considered, a potential area of concern for such a direct player can centre around his suitability at breaking down deep blocks. However, similar concerns were attributed to the front three of Salah, Mané and Díaz as well, but they were proven wrong over time. That’s because, unlike any other team in world football, sustained pressure is Liverpool’s biggest strength — that means both on and off the ball.
Liverpool aren’t your typical football team who probe to work angles to create against low blocks. Of course this is part of their strategy of breaking teams down, but what makes them so dangerous is their relentless onslaught of attacks and ability to sustain pressure in waves of attacks. Liverpool’s sustained pressure is achieved through compactness and relentless physical aggression as soon as the ball is lost. They’ll kill you and stifle you in aerial duels, ground duels, settled pressing and with their counter-press; there’s virtually no escaping.
Football is never as linear as attack versus low blocks like some people would want you to believe. The defensive team will still be open when they sustain attacks to be countered, to losing duels from long balls in the midfield or to being counter-pressed. Liverpool are dangerous in each and every facet of play. Thus, although Núñez lacks the composure, touch, vision and creativity of a solid #10, he’ll still aid Liverpool’s ability to sustain pressure and in transitions both on and off the ball.
When playing between the lines, Núñez will use his physicality and technical qualities to drop to link play or create a separation from his man and score goals as stated above. Thus, the talk of him struggling against teams with low blocks is overblown; Darwin Núñez is special in every regard.
When Jürgen Klopp wants a player, you can be sure that he has seen something in that player and has gone through every possible background check there is out there before making any official bid and securing the player. Thus, all things considered, there’s no doubt in my mind as to why Liverpool have spent €100 million on Darwin Núñez. He can operate both as a centre-forward and a left-winger to an elite standard, is a one-man attack and target man of sorts, has an elite mentality, is one of biggest physical specimens in the modern game and, most importantly, he is only 22.